February Book Review- 'Talking to Strangers' by Malcom Gladwell

Feb 11, 2020

In an era of ‘fake news,’ #MeToo, and growing international tensions, how do we understand the truth?  How do we learn the reality of both the Police and the Black Lives Matter cohort?  These are the ideas explored in Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell reviewed this month by Cathy Lanigan.

The troubling danger of failing to communicate is addressed by Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book entitled Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know. In a recent Atlantic Monthly interview, best-selling author Tara Westover illustrated Gladwell’s point when she warned of a gulf between the world view of those in the back seat of the Uber and those in the driver’s seat.  Ms. Westover, whose autobiography Educated was one of the most widely read books of 2019, was making the point that we have a widespread breakdown in understanding.

In his sixth nonfiction book, Malcolm Gladwell dissects this breakdown through familiar moments when that failure to communicate led to disastrous consequences.  His investigation is book-ended by the now infamous Texas traffic stop that led to the suicide of African American motorist Sandra Bland, but in-between it looks into the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, the Amanda Knox murder trial, and Neville Chamberlin’s devasting mis-read of Adolf Hitler on the eve of World War II among other events. 

What Talking to Strangers offers its readers is an opportunity to take what they know from the headlines and discover the moment that miscommunication led to disaster.  While never excusing the clearly criminal acts in question, Gladwell lays out step by step how those involved mis-read each other, and how that break down in understanding allowed terrible events to unfold.

In chapter eight, ‘The Fraternity Party,’ we unpack all the events leading up to the moment when Stanford student Brock Turner was discovered assaulting an unconscious Chanel Miller behind a dumpster.  By focusing in fine detail on how both parties ended up in that situation, Gladwell shows us the recipe that produced the tragic outcome. 

In another chapter, the investigation goes into granular detail on the precise miscues that eventually found Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky raping a child in the team shower.  In this case, the spotlight is on all those surrounding Sandusky.  What were the ingredients that added up to years of inaction on the part of the university athletic department?

In all, Gladwell uses these investigations to show how our assumptions, expectations and experience shape the way we communicate. I guarantee this is one you will be talking about! 

Talking to Strangers can be found in our local libraries.  For KPCW this is Cathy Lanigan.

Talking to Strangers

What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know

Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown and Company, 388 Pages

Published 2019