Review: Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hadn’t planned to read this book, but since it came as a bonus in a Next Big Idea Club box I gave it a read, and I was glad that I did. Gladwell uses stories of situations gone wrong to illustrate how our our interactions with strangers sometimes fails, and why. Through a number of stories bookended by the tragic Sandra Bland incident, we see the challenges of interacting with people when we assume that we understand their motivations, the downsides of our default to trust people, and the risks of being being too suspicious.

The two main themes of the book are that transparency (the idea that you can “read” people) is rarely reality, and that“defaulting to truth” (basically trusting people) has pros and cons, but the pros outweigh the cons. Gladwell uses stories of spies, terrorist interrogations, and policing to illustrate how things go wrong when we misunderstand how transparency and trust work.

In terms of Transparency, these stories put something important in the context of my personal and professional life into a larger context: It’s hard to guess what people are thinking based on externalities, and acting based on them without checking yourself– especially when you have an opportunity to ask – is a good way for interactions to go down hill. It can be difficult to guess what a spouse, colleague, or neighbor is thinking, even when you share a common context. When interacting with people you never met from different cultures and/or backgrounds it’s probably impossible, and curiosity is more likely that not the best approach.

Defaulting to Truth, the idea that people generally believe what others are saying is accurate, is more interesting. Gladwell give us a number of examples of how being too trusting let spies and other bad actors evade detection, even in the face of (in retrospect) obvious clues. On the other hand going the other way and being overly skeptical can lead to dysfunction, and bad things. While sometime bad things happen when we engage in Truth Default behavior, it is also necessary for us to function as society, community, and in interpersonal relationships.

My two main take-a-ways from the book are that, while Truth Default can sometimes lead you astray, the alternative can be worse , and that transparency is a myth, and curiosity is better. We need to understand when to apply healthy skepticism, both of others, and of our own perceptions to thrive as a community. With endnotes and footnotes for those who want to dig deeper, Talking to Strangers is an engaging book that is very topical. Anyone who wants to think about how to build better interactions, at any scale, should find this book valuable.

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