BOOK REVIEW: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

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

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This book uses a model that Gladwell has employed to great success in many books. That model goes like this: 1.) find some research findings that are counter-intuitive or otherwise in opposition to the consensus view (and preferably not well-known outside academia;) 2.) carefully select some fascinating real-world cases that seem to highlight said findings; 3.) skillfully present the cases in a highly readable and evocative narrative form, making surprising reveals for maximum effect.

In this case, the beating heart of the book is research by a University of Alabama, Birmingham professor, Timothy Levine, that shows that people are bad at catching liars because we are wired to accept statements as true and that some portion of population present appearances out of kilter with their truthfulness. (i.e. Some people come across as liars — even when telling the truth, and others appear truthful with pants ablaze.) This contradicts earlier research that suggests liars always have tells. [Interestingly, if true, Levine’s research upends studies Gladwell used in his previous book “Blink,” research by Paul Ekman that suggested that liars have “leakage” of “micro-expressions” that reveal their true emotional state. Gladwell admits his views have changed on the Ekman work. It’s the price of dealing with ground-breaking counter-intuitive research: sometimes, it’s not going to validate as well as one would like – not unlike the controversy about the Anders Ericsson’s “10,000-hour rule” that is the core of Gladwell’s 2008 book “Outliers,” and which seems much less robust in light of subsequent research.)

Gladwell employs a number of compelling stories to show how even individuals who should be the best of us at telling truth from lies (e.g. counter-intelligence officers, industry experts, and veteran law enforcement officers) do dismally at spotting lies and at grasping the true nature of what strangers hold in their hearts. [It should be noted that people are better truth detectors than lie detectors because of the aforementioned truth bias.] Readers also learn quirky facts such as why the sitcom “Friends” is insanely popular in many non-native English-speaking countries. (e.g. In Vang Vieng, Laos, I witnessed this myself, with several cafes and restaurants playing “Friends” on a loop all day every day.) The book also presents discussion of research overturning the idea that facial expression of emotions is universal.

I found this book to be an intriguing read and would highly recommend it for those interested in learning why it’s impossible to “read” strangers. I don’t know how well the ideas will validate, but the cases are interesting and compelling.


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6 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

    • Both sides have been lied to by their respective authorities for several decades, and pitted against each other as a distraction from all the graft and corruption. Each side thinks they’re 100% in the right as well. Nothing is more convincing than a lire wrapped in a half truth with a side order of fear.

      Liked by 1 person

    • True, BUT reading them, if done correctly, prevents one from being victimized by a person with a hidden nature.

      The errors in handling the situation usually involve believing one can cold read as well as a professional grifter, and / or assuming that because one sees something bad, that a person is beyond redemption.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. After being taken advantage of by so many people over the years, human behavior and various “reading” techniques have become a real interest to me. Your post inspired me to go pick up a copy of the book. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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