Today we are going to review Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers. Published on September 10, 2019.
Talking to Strangers book review
Why do we trust strangers?
Talking to Strangers explores why people tend to trust strangers. And how sometimes that extreme inclination can lead to tragic outcomes. According to Gladwell, humans have the habit of trusting others that they are telling the truth. He also gives us many examples in his book:
Bernie Madoff mocked many investors for decades. Many of them suspected something. The reason was they did not understand the nature of their business. Why did they pay stable revenues despite fluctuations in the stock market?
Despite this, the vast majority continued to trust him. Except for Harry Markopolos, who was an independent fraud investigator. He followed him for a long time. He saw him from the beginning as a wonderful scammer.
Markopolos discovered that Madoff was the brain of a pyramid of more than $ 65 billion. One of the biggest financial scandals in the United States. For that crime today Madoff pays a penalty of more than 100 years in jail. This case is one of the many examples of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Talking to Strangers.
The Truth Default Theory
In his book, the successful writer seeks to understand why people react as they do to people they don’t know. He says “Humans by nature are confident, of people, of technology, of everything. Sometimes too much, with tragic results”.
This idea is based on the work of psychologist Timothy Levine, from the University of Alabama. Levine developed the theory known as truth bias (in English Truth Default theory).
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This theory explains how the brain acts against truth and deception. According to Gladwell, human beings have the habit of trusting others. In principle, people think that other people are telling the truth. He says, “Not 100 percent, but in general terms, we believe in others enough to keep talking to them”.
There are some unbelievers like Markopolos. And that is why they are right from the beginning, as in the case of Madoff. Gladwell explains that if everyone behaved like this detective, there would be no fraud on Wall Street.
However, “at the same time, the air will be so full of doubts. And that is, there would be no Wall Street, banks, nor anyone could hire a lawyer or worker”. That failed lie detector, installed in the brain, is the price that people pay to live in society.
In his book, Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell offers an opportunity. He suggests thinking about the disconnection between the world presented by the media and the real world.
But that difficulty in reading others brings their tragedies. Most believe that others are transparent. The nonverbal language of a friend reflects his feelings on his face. But for Gladwell, in real life transparency is a myth. He considers this thought a superstition that it is enough to see in the eyes of the speaker to know if he is telling the truth.
According to his research, the more one tries to understand the other, the more mysterious the truth about him becomes. To prove his point, Gladwell gives us the example of the face-to-face interviews of bail applicants in New York. He says the judges thought the interviews were important. Yet, they were less effective than the computer. “It is as if we were always destined to misunderstand each other”.
The case of Amanda Knox
The case of Amanda Knox, a young student from Seattle, who was serving a prison sentence in Italy. She was accused of the murder of Meredith Kercher, her friend, and roommate in Perugia. Although the evidence absolved her, her behavior accused her.
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Gladwell says the problem was compatibility. The reason was that Knox did not react as the police and the public expected. “She looked brave when she should be sad. That was one of the reasons to blame her”.
According to scientific studies, facial expressions are not universal. The corners of the lips do not always symbolize happiness. Same like the frown does not show that they are angry. He considers that an incompatibility (mismatch). “If you believe that the appearance of a stranger is a reliable key to how you feel, you will make many mistakes. Amanda Knox was one of those mistakes”.
A few more examples to review Talking to Strangers
Two riddles intrigue the author. The first is, why it is so difficult to detect that someone is lying. Statistics show that the TSA does not detect guns or explosive devices 95 percent of the time. TSA stands for the US Transportation Security Administration.
One of the most shameful cases of espionage in the country was Ana Belén Montes. She was the best-trained spy in the CIA and was a double agent of Fidel Castro. When the suspicions arose they investigated her. But, she managed to get clean of all guilt. At last, after five years, they finally arrested her for that crime. The suspicions were true, but they did not detect them.
Psychologist Levine says anyone could think that they did not interrogate her well. But it is that believing liars is much more common. In fact, both in the case of Madoff and Montes, the experts in detecting liars ended up deceived.
In his second puzzle, he wonders why it is better not to personally know a public figure to interpret it well. The most illustrative case is that of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. He opted to visit Adolf Hitler to avoid war.
At the meeting with the Führer (leader), Chamberlain believed him that he would not invade Poland. While Winston Churchill never knew him. Despite this, he deciphered him as an enemy just by reading Mein Kampf (My Struggle). As a result, the world had to fight.
Approach others with care but also with humility.
People do things because they can do them at that time and place. This is something that the author calls coupling, the encounter of instinct with ease. All this leads to the story of Sandra Bland.
Transit agent Brian Encinia (white, 30) stopped her in Houston in 2014 for having passed a red light. He asked her questions, and she, an African-American woman, answered them. But, the conversation turned sour when she lit a cigarette and the officer asked her to put it out.
Things got complicated, Encinia jailed her and on the third day, she committed suicide in her cell. Gladwell does not analyze the incident from a racial perspective. He analyzes the incident from the point of view of two strangers. The strangers are from different worlds, so the chances of colliding are higher.
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In this case, Encinia acted as a Markopolos and not with the truth bias. He incurred an incompatibility and confused the woman. The reality was that the woman was upset because she lost her son a few weeks earlier.
The issue comes at the juncture of a society that is polarized. Here everyone lives in a bubble with little access to people who think differently. “What about a society that doesn’t know how to speak to strangers?”, Gladwell wonders.
Talking to Strangers book review: conclusion
In his book Talking to Strangers, he advises speaking to others with care but also with humility. “The truth about people is not a difficult thing but it is something very fragile. You can extract it out if anyone asks. We must understand that we will never understand them well”.
At the end of this review of Talking to Strangers book by Malcolm Gladwell, we hope that you found this helpful. We also hope that you are able to use these tips to help others. You can help someone you know who is struggling with trusting strangers.
If you want to read this book you can buy it through the link below.
Kamran is a literature graduate from a reputed university. He started his journey in the world of writing blogs in 2012. Over the years, his passion for writing and love of books evolved into a dedicated book blog. With a discerning eye from a literature lover, he offers reviews, summaries, and thought-provoking discussion questions.