Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell – Here are my Six Lessons and Takeaways

(Note from Randy:  this has been my longest “non-blogging” spell in quite a while.  In addition to a busy speaking schedule, our house was hit by the tornado last Sunday.  (Yes – really). We are still digging out, and we are in the midst of repairs, and adjustments.  So, sorry for the absence).


When Malcolm Gladwell comes out with a new book, it is always an “I’ve go to read this one immediately” reading experience.  He is, in my view, the absolute master at story-telling.  And his stories provide all sorts of opportunities to ponder big questions.

Talking to StrangersAt the October 4 First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas, I presented my synopsis of his latest book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know.  I actually presented this synopsis less than one month after it was published.

Here is a general comment before I share some of the key content, along with my lessons and takeaways.  This book has received some not-so-favorable reviews.  The complaint seems to be that he sort of adequately describes a problem, and offers little in the way of solutions.  My comment to that is:  that is what makes his books so valuable.  He raises issues, gets us thinking, and makes us ponder reality.  And, this book definitely puts us square in the midst of some very real issues and challenges.  We do make some horrible mistakes in reading strangers,  

I asked:  What is the point of this book?  Today we are now thrown into contact all the time with people whose assumptions, perspectives, and backgrounds are different from our own. The modern world is not two brothers feuding for control of the Ottoman Empire. It is Cortés and Montezuma struggling to understand each other through multiple layers of translators. Talking to Strangers is about why we are so bad at that act of translation.

And I include this in my synopsis:  Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three reasons for this book:
#1 – We are not very good at evaluating the intentions, and truthfulness, of strangers we encounter.  This book will…help us understand why we are not very good at it..
#2 – This book will help us understand that the problem we think we have identified may not be the problem at all.
#3 – This book is a great book of really revealing stories, written by probably the master story-teller of our age.  You would enjoy reading this book, in spite of the very difficult issues raised.

In the book, Mr. Gladwell tells stories of many “encounters between strangers” —   Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler; a police officer, Brian Encinia, and Sandra Bland; many people connected to/interacting with Bernie Madoff; a spy from Cuba hidden in plain sight in the highest of positions in our intelligence agencies; Jerry Sandusky, and Larry Nassar; among many others.  The bottom line:  we really aren’t that good at discerning the “truth” about the people we interact with.

Here are a few of my highlighted passages from the book.  (I include many more in my synopsis handout):

• “I am ready to face a world war!” Hitler exclaimed to Chamberlain at one point. Hitler made it plain that he was going to seize the Sudetenland, regardless of what the world thought. Chamberlain wanted to know whether that was all Hitler wanted. Hitler said it was. Chamberlain looked at Hitler long and hard and decided he believed him.  …“In short I had established a certain confidence which was my aim, I thought I saw in his face I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”
• Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler are widely regarded as one of the great follies of the Second World War. Chamberlain fell under Hitler’s spell. He was outmaneuvered at the bargaining table.  (Chamberlain about Hitler) He gave me the double handshake.
(Note: Churchill was never in Hitler’s physical presence; never met him) — Winston Churchill, for example, never believed for a moment that Hitler was anything more than a duplicitous thug. Churchill called Chamberlain’s visit “the stupidest thing that has ever been done.”
• We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves, of course. We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy. If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let it be this: Strangers are not easy.
• The issue with spies is not that there is something brilliant about them. It is that there is something wrong with us.
• To snap out of truth-default mode requires what Levine calls a “trigger.” A trigger is not the same as a suspicion, or the first sliver of doubt. We fall out of truth-default mode only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive. We do not behave, in other words, like sober-minded scientists, slowly gathering evidence of the truth or falsity of something before reaching a conclusion. • We do the opposite. We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.
• To Markopolos (who spotted Madoff for the fraud he was), dishonesty and stupidity are everywhere. “They trust the accounting firms, which you should never trust because they’re incompetent. On a best day they’re incompetent, on a bad day they’re crooked, and aiding and abetting the fraud, looking the other way.”
• The Holy Fool is someone who doesn’t think this way. The statistics say that the liar and the con man are rare. But to the Holy Fool, they are everywhere.
• Because we trust implicitly, spies go undetected, criminals roam free, and lives are damaged. …but the air would be so thick with suspicion and paranoia that there would also be no Wall Street.
• If every coach is assumed to be a pedophile, then no parent would let their child leave the house, and no sane person would ever volunteer to be a coach. We default to truth—even when that decision carries terrible risks—because we have no choice. Society cannot function otherwise. …And in those rare instances where trust ends in betrayal, those victimized by default to truth deserve our sympathy, not our censure.
• That is the paradox of talking to strangers. We need to talk to them. But we’re terrible at it—and, as we’ll see in the next two chapters, we’re not always honest with one another about just how terrible at it we are.
• When a liar acts like an honest person, though, or when an honest person acts like a liar, we’re flummoxed. …We are bad lie detectors in those situations when the person we’re judging is mismatched. …Madoff was mismatched. He was a liar with the demeanor of an honest man.
• Students think it is a good idea to be trained in self-defense, and not such a good idea to clamp down on drinking. …But the issue is not how men behave around women when they are sober. It is how they behave around women when they are drunk, and have been transformed by alcohol into a person who makes sense of the world around them very differently.
• At the end of the trial, Emily Doe read a letter out loud to the court, addressed to Brock Turner. Every young man and woman who goes to a bar or a fraternity party should read Emily Doe’s letter.
Show men how to respect women, not how to drink less. But that’s not quite right, is it? That last line should be “Show men how to respect women and how to drink less,” because the two things are connected.
• The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly, it will crumple under our feet. …And from that follows a second cautionary note: we need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that.
• I have now watched the videotape of her encounter with Brian Encinia more times than I can count—and each time I do, I become angrier and angrier over the way the case was “resolved.”
• What went wrong that day on FM 1098 in Prairie View, Texas, was a collective failure. Someone wrote a training manual that foolishly encouraged Brian Encinia to suspect everyone, and he took it to heart.

• Here are some of the key observations from Talking to Strangers. (Much of what follows is also taken directly from the book):

So…what is this book? — Today we are now thrown into contact all the time with people whose assumptions, perspectives, and backgrounds are different from our own. The modern world is not two brothers feuding for control of the Ottoman Empire. It is Cortés and Montezuma struggling to understand each other through multiple layers of translators. Talking to Strangers is about why we are so bad at that act of translation.Each of the chapters that follows is devoted to understanding a different aspect of the stranger problem.In all of these cases, the parties involved relied on a set of strategies to translate one another’s words and intentions. And in each case, something went very wrong.

  • The two “puzzles”
  • Puzzle Number One: Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face?
  • Puzzle Number Two: How is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them?
  • Some rather obvious warnings:
  • you can’t tell if someone is trustworthy by looking into their eyes. You can’t ever tell that way. Not you; not anyone!
  • Chamberlain was acting on the same assumption that we all follow in our efforts to make sense of strangers. We believe that the information gathered from a personal interaction is uniquely valuable. — The people who were right about Hitler were those who knew the least about him personally. The people who were wrong about Hitler were the ones who had talked with him for hours.
  • The big explanation—we simply “trust” people. And, if we don’t, society would not work as well…
  • We have a default to truth: our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.
  • You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them. — But he wasn’t willing to believe that he (Madoff) was an out-and-out liar. Simons had doubts, but not enough doubts. He defaulted to truth.
  • The key distinction:  I’m going to come back to the distinction between some doubts and enough doubts, because I think it’s crucial.

And here are my six lessons and takeaways:

#1 – We do have to interact with strangers, constantly.  We can’t change this.
#2 – We do have to “trust” the people we interact with.  Life and society will not work if we don’t trust each other.
#3 – You/we really do not know how to read people; how to tell if they are trustworthy…
#4 – Beware of “coupling” dangers: e.g., if there is depression in your house, do not keep a gun around.
#5 – Our society needs to reward the needed “Holy Fools” – but, seriously, we don’t want too many of them
#6 – We really are bad at talking to strangers.  If we can’t get better at it — and; we may not be able to get much better at it — at least we can become more aware of how bad we are at it.David and Goliath, Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has given us much to think about.  From the trends described in The Tipping Point, to the 10,000 hour rule described in Outliers, to our quick and slow evaluations in Blink, to the contests described in David and Goliath, and now to this about how to be wiser in our interactions with strangers…he helps us think about how we think about people, circumstances, and challenges.  I wholeheartedly recommend that you read this book.  It will make you think!


A personal note:  our neighborhood was decimated by the tornado.  The house directly across from us lost its entire roof.  Around the corner, a house was completely flattened.  Big, beautiful trees are cracked in two, and everywhere piled up at the curb up and down our streets.  People are knocking on our doors, offering to do some of the needed work.  I thought of this book, and made a decision – I would hire no one without some kind of “data” to back up their expertise.  I cannot make an assessment with just my interactions with the strangers knocking on our door.  In one instance, someone offered to take out a “damaged” tree; and we called a licensed arborist; one we carefully researched, but had never met..  Her assessment: the tree definitely does not need to be removed.  This book saved me (ok; our insurance company) money; and saved a beautiful tree).


My synopsis will be available soon – with the audio recording of my presentation, plus the full, multi-page, comprehensive synopsis handout, on this web site.  Click here for our newest additions from the last few months.

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