I found it oddly satisfying that Talking to Strangers was the fortieth and the last book that I read as part of the Goodreads 2019 Reading Challenge. For those of you who are expecting this to be a self-help book, let me make it clear that is not (However there is one very important take away from this book personally). Instead it is an exploration of the various theories and mental models that are used in our daily interactions with strangers.
I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell after a very long time and had skipped the last few of his books. So, Talking to Strangers was something like a re-introduction to Gladwell for me. So how good is this book? Well, rather than putting a number to it, let me put it this way. This book is as good as Gladwell’s other books. Like all his writing, in Talking to Strangers, Gladwell tries to leave the audience with an important thought – whether our current mental models are helpful or harmful in our interactions with strangers. Using examples from varied fields (only some of which are relevant in daily life), Gladwell explains how social psychology can work for or against an individual and consequently can shape societal trends.
A mixed bag of characters
While the case studies on the Cuban spies and the Chamberlain meetings with Hitler may not be too relevant in today’s world, there are others that hit home hard. The cases of Jerry Sandusky, Sandra Bland and the drunk frat party incidents are particularly harrowing to read as these can affect you and me any day.
Gladwell proposes three major theories in this book – Default to truth, Transparency, and Coupling. The default to truth theory refers to people’s general inclination to believe that the other person is being truthful in his or her communication. This theory plays a major role in shaping negotiations between strangers, especially when there is an asymmetry of information. Gladwell says that although relying on the default to truth theory can sometimes work against you in some of the cases, it is a very worthwhile heuristic to keep in mind in our human interactions. Without it, he claims, that there would be a complete breakdown in trust, commerce and other activities. An example that Gladwell beautifully brings out as far as Wall Street is concerned.
The theory of Transparency proposes that an individual’s outer behaviour matches what they feel inside. If a person smiles and moves energetically, he is feeling elated inside.
We tend to judge people’s honesty based on their demeanor. Well-spoken, confident people with a firm handshake who are friendly and engaging are seen as believable. Nervous, shifty, stammering, uncomfortable people who give windy, convoluted explanations aren’t.
This is another heuristic that society uses in measuring up the other party in any interaction. A majority of people in the world are transparent. Their behaviour matches their inner feelings. So for the most part this heuristic works. From cops trying to find out whether a suspect is lying, or juries (or judges) when attempting to sum up a defendant. But for cases where people are not matched, relying on this heuristic can be very dangerous. Gladwell explains this with the case of Amanda Knox, an American woman, who was wrongfully incarcerated for four years in an Italian prison after being found guilty in a murder case. According to Gladwell, it was he mismatched behaviour and lack of transparency that led the police and the judiciary to rule that she was guilty, even in the light of insufficient evidence to prove that she was in the room where her roommate was murdered.
The Coupling theory proposes that the behaviour of an individual must be seen in relation to his circumstances. If, in our, interactions with strangers, we are not aware of the context in which the other person is behaving it can lead to confusion at best and disaster at worst.
Like other books by Gladwell, Talking to Strangers is an easy read and I breezed through it well within a week. Gladwell must be complimented for his lucid writing and his ability to keep the readers hooked. It also helps that his stories nicely wrap together the theories that he proposes (the downside of this later).
On the other hand, it can also be argued that, as is with most nonfiction books, Gladwell stretches out a point needlessly with case studies and anecdotes, some of which are totally irrelevant to the individual. At other times it feels like that the author is trying to shape the interpretation to fit the theory. An example of this is using the Friends episode to explain the concept of Transparency. Totally, anecdotal in my opinion. In his own words, “I’m interested in collecting interesting stories, and I’m interested in collecting interesting research. What I’m looking for is cases where they overlap.”
This does not mean that this book is not worth reading. For me, the biggest takeaway in the book for me was the issue of Transparency, or the lack thereof. Amanda Knox was caught and thrown in prison because of her lack of transparency. She could not show on the outside what she felt on the inside. And society misread her and wrongly punished her for it. Although such cases are far and few between, it still warrants a second thought on the importance of matching one’s outer behaviour with inner feelings.
Read Talking to Strangers if you’re interested in how individuals use these heuristics to process and simplify human interactions and what happens when these theories fail in practice. There is definitely a few useful pointers to take from this book and fans of Gladwell will definitely enjoy another thought-provoking book by him.
A little more on Gladwell’s writing
Now that brings me to a broader look at Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. Gladwell broke into the literary world through his first book – The Tipping Point which was an instant bestseller. He received a $1 million advance for writing it after his article on the same topic in the New Yorker. And through that book (and next bestselling book, Blink) the world of pop psychology was forever changed. Yes, that is what Gladwell’s writings can be classified into. His works do have popular impact and are often picked up by his readers as fact. As an example, the famous 10000 hour rule was first introduced by Gladwell in the Tipping Point. This limit is considered as a threshold for gaining expertise in any human endeavour. Post this there have been countless books and Youtube videos that profess the 10000 hour rule as gospel truth. That it has been equally debunked by other studies is a separate point.
There is no doubt that Gladwell’s writings makes society think. And his books bring otherwise bland and often dry theories to a wider audience. He can probably package the most yawn-worthy stories into a fun to read bestseller. Whether it is the Tipping Point, Blink, or Talking to Strangers, there’s enough serious material in each of these books to make you pause and think.
But personally I feel that beyond that initial ‘hmm’ and pause in one’s life, the reader tends to move on. Malcolm says that his aim is to get more people to take psychology seriously. But ironically, in order to do that, the serious reader would have to explore further and deeper than simply to spout the theories that he proposes in his books as gospel.