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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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of the Tale by Steven James & Tom Morrisey

The Art of the Tale: Engage Your Audience, Elevate Your Organization, and Share Your Message Through StorytellingThe Art of the Tale: Engage Your Audience, Elevate Your Organization, and Share Your Message Through Storytelling by Steven James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a fine book on storytelling, storytelling with a focus on business presentations and speeches. That said, this is a topic for which the market is glutted. There are many books available about storytelling, and while this one doesn’t distinguish itself by being exceptionally bad, neither does it distinguish itself as exceptionally good. It’s a decent book on storytelling, and if you’re interested in stories for work presentations or speeches and haven’t read other books on the subject, you might as well try this one. However, if you’ve studied up on the subject, I wouldn’t expect to discover anything profound or novel in this book.

The book does focus on some subjects more than do others. One of my favorite parts was chapter 11, “Warts and All…,” because it addresses an issue that books tend to overlook or gloss over, and that’s how to deal with the skeletons in one’s closet (or in the company’s closet.) It offers an intriguing look at the dark side of Henry Ford.

One of the strengths of this book is that it summarizes key lessons and repeatedly revisits core concepts (e.g. the StoryCube, which is these authors’ outline for presenting the fundamental elements of a story.) The book’s greatest weakness is probably oversimplifications and banal statements, particularly given that the authors critique the simplifying statements of others. For example, they offer a criticism of the common distinction between plot- and character-driven literature that misses that there is something fundamentally different between Joyce’s “Ulysses” and “The Hunger Games” that is worth understanding, and – to the degree their criticism is true – much of this book could be similarly criticized as oversimplification or false dichotomization / categorization.

Reading this book helped me think about the subject of storytelling, particularly the non-written variety of story, but I can’t say there was anything groundbreaking or of unmatched profundity.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Power of Podcasting by Siobhan McHugh

The Power of Podcasting: Telling stories through soundThe Power of Podcasting: Telling stories through sound by Siobhan McHugh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is in part a how-to guide, and in part a history of podcasting’s rise, though a history that tries to look from within rather than from a distance as much as possible. The two major thrusts of the book are story and sound. Of the many varieties of podcasts that exist today, the focus of this book is on ones that are story-centric, be they non-fiction or fiction. [Of course, there’s an argument that all podcasts should employ story to some degree, even if they aren’t of a format that facilitates an overarching story.] McHugh, herself, uses stories and what I’d call meta-stories (i.e. the stories of how various podcast-delivered stories got told) extensively throughout the book.

With respect to sound, there’s a lot of background sound and music that makes the difference between a professional sounding podcast and one that’s not. This is a particularly difficult subject to grasp because – while one often experiences background sound and music drawing one deeper into the story (or – perhaps more accurately – one feels its absence as a vague sense of detachment,) one tends not to be aware of this background audio on a conscious level. Therefore, discussions that point out the thinking about background audio choices can be profoundly eye-opening for a neophyte, such as myself.

When I say that the book has a podcasting how-to aspect, I should emphasize it doesn’t get into the technical aspects (i.e. what kind of mic to buy and how to use it,) but rather it discusses such topics as scripting, interviewing, editing / reorganizing for effect, and starting out. The book also has chapters at the end about increasing diversity in what has been an extremely Caucasian-centric industry as well as offering insight into potential future directions of audio storytelling. Throughout. there are short interviews with individuals with expertise in the industry, and there’s an extensive appendix, listing podcasts and podcasting resources.

If you’re interested in starting a podcast or learning more about podcasting, I’d highly recommend this book.


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Patience: Casualty of Modernity [Limerick]

There was an old man, some called "ancient,"
who got riled everyone was so impatient.
"The world was much better
when we talked by letter,
and you only got instant replies if adjacent."

BOOK REVIEW: The Information by James Gleick

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodThe Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Information is one of those topics that remains obscure not because it’s rare or hidden, but because it’s everywhere and the term is used for so many purposes it’s not thought of cohesively. It might seem like a book on this topic would be hopelessly boring by virtue of the fundamental meta-ness of the material. Instead, Gleick had a vast sea of topics and stories involving intense stakes for humanity from which to choose, e.g.: how did we learn to communicate and advance said capability until it was arguably the most important feature of our species, by what instructions are people “assembled,” might the most fundamental layer of reality be informational, and – in recent decades — will our species drown in flood of cheap information?

Given the vast sprawl of the subject matter, organization becomes a crucial question. In a sense the book is chronological, presenting humanity’s experience with information in more or less the order we came to think about the subject. I think this was a wise move as it starts from what most people think of when they think of information – i.e. language and its communication. That makes it easier to wrap one’s head around what comes later, and to see the conceptual commonalities. This approach might seem self-evident, but an argument could be made for starting with information as the word is used in Physics (as addressed in Ch. 7 – 9,) an argument that that approach is more fundamental and generically applicable, and while it might be both of those things, it wouldn’t be as easily intuitively grasped.

I found this book to be fascinating and easily followed — even though it covers some conceptually challenging topics, it does so in an approachable manner. It is over a decade old, but holds up well – though I think there is much more to say these days about the detrimental effects of information overload, a topic discussed at the end of the book. I recommend it for nonfiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide by Paul Cobley

Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide by Paul Cobley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Semiotics is the study of how symbols and signs are used to represent various things and actions in language and communication. This brief guide traces the subject from its origins with Saussure and Pierce (late 19th century) to the present day. It’s not a well-known discipline and overlaps with others (e.g. information science, linguistics, etc.) so as to further obscure it’s boundaries. It’s generally considered a sub-discipline of philosophy.

I’ve read several titles in this series. This one had the fewest and longest chapters – i.e. most of these books have sections that are only a page or two long, but here the sections were generally several pages long. The book looks at differences between American and Soviet approaches as well as discussing the Prague School and the influence of prominent philosophers on the subject.

I felt that I learned something about this obscure subject, though – I must admit – knowing so little of it, I can’t say that I would have recognized if there were any glaring oversights or mistakes in the book. As should be expected of such a concise introductory guide, it’s readable and not difficult to follow. However, it can be dry; though I suspect that’s difficult to avoid, given the subject matter.


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BOOK REVIEW: Nature is Never Silent by Madlen Ziege

Nature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each otherNature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each other by Madlen Ziege
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: Hardcover out February 8, 2021 [e-book is out now]

The central premise of this book is that humans miss the tremendous amount of communication that is going on among and between other species. We miss it because we think of communication in an extremely limited way that revolves around visual and auditory expressions of human style languages. It doesn’t occur to us that different senses (e.g. smell) or other activities (e.g. stinging or passing gases,) could be used to convey messages as overt as, “Don’t touch me!” to as complex as, “There are good flowers to the southeast, roughly four-hundred meters along this line” or “Watch out! Some beetles have started chewing on my bark.”

While one might still dismiss all this communication as extremely simple compared to the infinitely complicated endeavor humans have made communicating, it’s not all just warning signaling. Many species engage in a form of communication that most people would probably attribute to humanity alone, specifically, deception. There are female fireflies who cannot only send a mating signal to males of her species to engage in reproduction, but can send counterfeit signals of other species to attract a male of another species of which she can make a snack.

It’s also important to note that it’s not just the species most similar to us who communicate. There are chapters devoted to both unicellular creatures and plants, species that one might be surprised to learn are quite active communicators.

I found this to be a highly thought-provoking book for the nature-lover, and I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to expand his or her horizons with respect to what is being transmitted in the natural world on those cold and quiet days when it seems like not a creature is stirring, and yet there’s always something.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Reading Minds by Henrik Fexeus

The Art of Reading Minds: How to Understand and Influence Others Without Them NoticingThe Art of Reading Minds: How to Understand and Influence Others Without Them Noticing by Henrik Fexeus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: October 15, 2019

This isn’t a book about telepathy, clairvoyance, or any other form of ESP. It’s a book about nonverbal communication, and how to use it to both recognize the true mental and emotional states of others and to be able to influence said states. It draws on a range of findings and approaches, including those of Paul Ekman, NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), Robert Caldini, and Antonio Damasio.

The book consists of twelve chapters. The first clarifies the nature of the “mind reading” under discussion. Chapters two and three propose how both nonverbal and verbal communication can be used to build rapport. A lot of the rapport-building chapters are about how one can subtly mirror another so as to create an impression of kindredness without freaking the other person out or seeming like one is mocking them. Chapter four investigates the role of perception in the processes presented throughout the book.

Chapter five explores emotions. Of course, any “mind reading” of value must capture not only thoughts, but how the individual feels about (and as a result of) said thoughts. Paul Ekman’s work on “leakage” is central to this topic. Ekman discovered that even when people are successful in covering expressions of their true feelings with either a poker-face or another emotional expression, they often made extremely brief “micro-expressions” of their true feelings.

Chapter six discusses the ethics and morality of this topic. The active exploitation of nonverbal communication can bear the stink of being manipulative, and that necessitates consideration of how such activities can blow up in one’s face.

Chapter seven is about “lie detection” and the truth and myth of this topic. One thing I liked about this book is that the author is quite forthcoming about the limited support for some of the ideas that are conveyed, as well as the limitations of what these tools can do for one. Many authors of this type of work suggest that these tactics are iron-clad science, which isn’t the case. The most controversial of these approaches is NLP. Neuro-Linguistic Programming has an extremely stalwart following among many people ranging from salespeople to therapists. However, NLP has not fared well when subjected to scientific investigation. NLP supporters suggest this is because investigators are fighting a straw man by considering oversimplified claims that were never made by Bandler and Grinder (the NLP founders.) As an example, NLP claims that a person will tend to look one direction when remembering and another when imagining. Some within the NLP suggest this is the basis of lie detection (if a respondent looks as though they are imagining versus recalling, they must be involved in a fabrication.)

Chapter eight delves into the body language of flirting, and educates the reader about how they might be flirting (or being flirted with) without even recognizing it. Chapter nine explores suggestibility and many of ideas that are presented are from hypnosis, though the author isn’t explicitly teaching hypnosis.

Chapter ten is entitled “Haul Anchors” and it suggests that one can act in certain ways to trigger desired emotional states in another person. The penultimate chapter is about mentalist party tricks that one can use to convince oneself and others of one’s abilities, and the last chapter is a conclusion and wrap-up.

The book offers a references section, and includes many graphics (particularly black and white photos and diagrams) as necessary to convey examples. Needless to say, a picture is often worth a thousand words when dealing with nonverbal communication.

While I’m skeptical about using some of the approaches presented in this book as the basis of one’s behavior, I appreciate that the author is forthcoming about what is controversial and what is well-supported. Fexeus takes the view that one should try it out for oneself, and draw one’s own conclusions. I also think the inclusion of an ethical discussion is essential as many of these books come off as kind of creepy – not to mention overblown. If you’re looking for a book on nonverbal communication, rapport-building, and persuasion, this one does a fine job.

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