“Talking to Strangers” – Malcolm Gladwell

I have been tempted to pick up the “Talking to Strangers” book having previously liked Gladwell’s “Outliers (read it in 2015 & gave it a 4 out of 5 star rating back then) & also because of its title, which ended up being completely misleading. I was expecting something more psychological or something that would give insights on how to read or understand strangers. Based on the actual content of the book, I wish the author would have chosen a different title, something in the direction of “The Impossible Quest of Reading Strangers”.

“Talking to Strangers” can be summed up in just a single sentence. It simply elaborates how bad we are at interpreting strangers & that we suck at knowing whether they’re telling the truth or not (even when using additional gadgets such as polygraph tests or methods of torture to try & get information out of people). That’s it. There’s not much more to it. This is being stressed by the following phrase, which feels like it has been repeated at least a dozen of times within the book:

We’re truth biased. For what turn out to be good reasons, we give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that the people we’re talking to are being honest.

p. 172

What follows are various stories taken from real life that illustrate this statement, a lot of them being ones that you might have heard about on the news, such as the Amanda Knox case. I felt like all of them were very North American-centric though which is either the case because the author deliberately chose that geographical area as his reader target group or because those are the stories that were more approachable to him (where he could do deeper research on). Because of that, I can see North Americans finding the book generally more compelling, but for me each new story rather felt like, “Ugh, another example from the States…”

All the individual stories themselves are really interesting & Gladwell’s story-telling style is impeccable. He manages to present everything in an understandable way with a clean & precise language, which is fitting for such a non-fiction book. The topics have quite a wide range, covering the following:

– Relations between Cuban & American CIA spies (how the Cubans managed to trick the Americans & stories about double-agents in general)
– Hitler & his masterful ways of charming people in person
– A guy who managed to illegally build up a fortune in stocks without anyone discovering it
– 2 cases, one about a sports coach sexually abusing his students, the second one about a doctor taking advantage of his adolescent patients, how it took countless years to bring both of these men to court
– The Amanda Knox case 
– A story about a woman getting sexually abused on campus while in a drunk state
– The questioning of an Al Qaeda terrorist with techniques that can almost be identified as torture 
– The suicide tale of the writer Sylvia Plath
– A case of different policing tactics in American cities, trying to find the most efficient one in order to drastically reduce crime.

A problem that arises though, is the way that the stories are bound together. I found that the way the book was structured quite messy & chaotic, the writer going back & forth between topics, not finishing one, skipping over to the next one, seemingly pointlessly repeating certain parts & so on. This didn’t contribute to a fluidity of the reading experience & it took me 2 entire weeks to go through “Talking to Strangers”, which personally is a really really long time to finish a book of just about 350 pages! On top of that, the “Notes” section in the end isn’t organised in a way that you would easily be able to read while going through the main text. A lot of interesting deep-dives on certain topics are offered (some of these as long as 2 entire pages), but since they’re not sorted by page numbers, it’s a pain to try & take advantage of them, rather than being an interesting extra.

All in all, I’d say that if you’re interested in reading something of Gladwell’s, rather go for some of his other books & not this one. As a very last side note, I’ve been told that the audio version of this book might be better than the hard copy because it includes original snippets of the stories/court cases described, so if you’re still curious about it, rather go for that one.

“Talking to Strangers” – Malcolm Gladwell (2019)

★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

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