Talking to strangers: Book review

12 January, 2020 5 minutes read

This post started as a book review for Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, "Talking to Strangers". Halfway through I felt like there are enough "classic" book review out there (the NYT one is pretty good) and a more interesting take would be looking into my learnings, how "talking to strangers" effected me and what will I probably retain from it.

The core of truth behind talking to strangers is simple and equally brutal: We think we know people, but we don't. We may have a better chance to know people that are similar to us, or have a slightly better chance when a stranger's behavior is consistent with what they are saying. For the most part, in the sea of grey area that's in between the very few clear-cut cases, we're actually doing ourselves a disservice by trying to use our heuristics and pre-perceptions to understand strangers, we just have no idea.

In the book, Malcolm Gladwell is covering three major themes through storytelling:

  • Default to truth - how as a society we always believe the the person in front of us is honest
  • Transparency - how we (wrongfully) tend of interpret external signals and associate them to emotions
  • Coupling - looking not only at the stranger but both at the environmental and contextual elements.

When I look at those three facets holistically, talking to strangers becomes a story about identity, of both ourselves' and the people we are interacting with in our everyday lives. I'm going to focus on the interaction part, keep the self-investigation part for some other time.

my two guiding principals for talking to strangers people

The chaotic thing about talking to strangers is that every time we interact with people, we interact with a snapshot of that person in the current moment: Who we are right now is not who we were yesterday and most definitely not who we were 3 or 5 years ago. So even if we think we know a person (which according to Gladwell, we really don't unless we take into account contextual and environmental factors) we only really know them for the period of time in which we interact.

When trying to cope with all that mess and trying to think how am I dealing with talking to strangers (or less than strangers) I came up with two guiding principals that I've been practicing for a very long time and they both help me with the interaction itself or post-processing it.

The first one if the language of feeling and needs portrayed in the best way possible in Marshall B. Rosenberg's book Nonviolent Communication. When it comes to the core of human interaction, Marshall Rosenberg writes that we are driven by requests that are combination of feelings and needs. I'm paraphrasing a little but the subtext of requests is something along the lines of - I need ____ because I feel ____.

Of course, we don't really know what goes into those blanks so according to the principals of nonviolent communication, our best course of action is empathy, listening and openness (as oppose to judgement and diagnosis that is often a projection of our set of heuristics and prejudice on a situation). That's exactly what I try to do when I'm in a conversation and it's not always easy: In a world where we really like to help and very solution oriented, it's very tempting to go "I think I get you, here's how to solve it" but I found out that the more I listen, the more accurate and honest the request from the other person become.

My second guiding principal is the basic assumption that people are doing their best, explained in detail (and colorful language) in Brené Brown's book "Rising Strong" (and repeated throughout her newer ones as well).

This one took a little bit more time to sink in, I have to admit. I rumbled with the concept of "are people really doing their best?" as a blanket statement quite a bit because I'd like to believe otherwise but as Malcolm Gladwell taught me, I probably have no idea. So this is my way of reconciling the chaos that is talking to strangers - people are doing the best they can with the tools we have.

Could they be doing more? Is that REALLY the best they can do and if so, what does it say about them? about me? I found out that whenever I'm dealing with those questions I'm putting my own judgement and assessment on other people's feelings and needs which is a wild guess at best, if I really want to fill in the blanks there's no better way of doing it than be explicit and find out for myself.

should you read talking to strangers?

Like every other Malcolm Gladwell book, you're not going to get any hard advice on the topic of talking to strangers. What Gladwell is really good at is storytelling around several points he want to make and work that Rubik's cube until hopefully something clicks with you.

Unlike similar books on human interaction, Talking to strangers is what you make of it. I started reading the digital edition and quickly switched to the audiobook version, for two reasons: First, Gladwell is all about storytelling and the narrated version bring news segments and acted parts that make the storytelling better. Second, since there's not a lot of note taking in the book, the audio version made me jot down my thoughts as I go and write this review instead.

If you are ready to have your heuristics and judgement challenged by research and high-profile cases, this is a good book for you. If you're looking for more concrete advice, start with Nonviolent communication.