Would you be willing to wrestle with the idea that we allow television sitcoms to affect the way we perceive individual emotional behaviors? How Neville Chamberlain from Britain had multiple meetings face to face with Hitler before the war and Hitler was able to convince Chamberlain to trust him? Or how Fidel Castrol was able to pull off one of the largest “double agent” insertion operations in CIA history? These are some of the things Malcolm Gladwell attacks in his new book Talking to Strangers.
Something I never would have thought I would do in 33 years on this Earth is review a book. I did some online research to read up on some tips on how they are typically conducted. We’ll see what we end up with from about 10 minutes of book review education. My goal in this review is to give some insight on the material I read and how I perceived the topic before the book, and also how I regarded it after, along with how I can apply it in the future.
Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers. He has a podcast entitled “Revisionist History” and a writer at the New Yorker. He was also named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine and one of Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers. I chose to read this book because I have read a few of his books in the past which were just as insightful as this one. They were titled Blink and David vs. Goliath. I also had two different people in two completely different situations use material from his book to make a point. So, I had to go grab it immediately and start on it.
A style he likes to use in whatever the topic of his books, he uses real life stories that support his material. Many of the stories in his books are historical or newsworthy stories that many of us have heard before. He has, what I jokingly say, is an obsessive in-depth research and interview discipline. He will take what your brain knows about the subject and at a minimum, will make you question everything you thought you knew on that topic. He has every reference he used to acquire the information in the back of his book so you can check his work. His writing is very easy to follow. What I like most is the fact that he breaks his chapters up into sections. A chapter may be between 15-40 pages with up to seven sections to break it up. With a busy day to day life as many of us have and for those that have “shiny thing” syndrome and can’t sit for long periods reading, every few pages has a great opportunity for a stopping point.
The introduction begins with the story of Sandra Bland and a traffic stop that occurred in 2015. What he does here is he gives the facts of the encounter. He records the dialogue between the two from the dash cam and you will eventually choose a side. Are you team cop or team Bland? What Gladwell gets after here is why would a traffic stop over not using her turn signal when changing lanes, end in her hanging herself in her cell three days later? We look at how these two STRANGERS interacted and how it could have been different.
One of the first “theories” that is discussed in the book is the “Default to Truth” theory. He uses the Castro example of sending in double agents and how the top intelligence agency in the world (the CIA) couldn’t detect one, but multiple spies during interview screenings and investigations. He argues that most people will default to truth when needing to choose if what’s in front of them is a truth or lie. The theory is we all have a certain threshold of “doubts” that once we can’t explain away a certain number of doubts, then we start leaning towards disbelief. So, if a husband for the last two weeks has been working odd hours and not answering calls or texts much, a wife will have doubts. She will be able to explain away most of them no matter how far-fetched. Once she can’t explain whatever her threshold of “doubts” are, she begins forcing the issue.
I say all that not as a spoiler (hopefully), but to show you these are the building blocks in which to view every scenario in the book. Now obviously he explains all of this much more eloquently than I did, but I hope the point was framed well for you.
The counter to the previous theory is what’s called “The Holy Fool.” These refer to the few that basically have an extreme low threshold of doubts and can see through lies much easier. THIS is where you need to pay attention. I have always considered myself a good judge of character. As an NCO in the Infantry, (and I say Infantry and not simply military because the Infantry has the largest melting pot of people in it) I have had to discern how I make administrative recommendations to my Commander on Soldiers involved in spousal abuse, alcohol infractions, drug use, poor performance, theft, and down right Soldiers saying “I quit.” But, after going through these chapters and allowing myself to be open to what is being presented to me, I’m not the “Holy Fool” I thought I was. I think most of us, and especially men, think that we are. But that’s okay, because I can use the tools given and try and identify my threshold of doubts and techniques described in the book in later chapters to be a better leader and decision maker.
Other stories he tackles in later chapters are the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State. He uses the TV sitcom “Friends” as an example of TV affecting the way we read strangers. He interviews the gentlemen that created the interrogation technique of “water boarding” and how they used it on one of Al Qaeda’s top men and argues how interrogation is more often counterproductive when trying to pull information from strangers. And my favorite part of the book is the very last chapter, which was the first chapter of the book, Sandra Bland and her traffic stop in Texas.
What Gladwell does here is in the first chapter, like I stated previously, gives you the “what happened” and you decide for yourself how you interpret the situation. He then guides you through all the chapters I stated previously, and then some. After you’ve journeyed through this trip of having your eyes opened to our nature in dealing with strangers, he then brings you back to Sandra. Now, you begin to look at it through a completely new set of lenses. For me, I’m not saying whether I switched sides or not, but it definitely made me empathetic to the side that maybe I wasn’t necessarily on in the beginning. For you, it may not change you at all. But for many, I’m confident if you take it seriously and allow yourself to be humble and open to change, this book and topic will round out and polish some of those people skills and judging eyes some of us have.
I give this book a 5/5 rating for its easy to read and follow format and interesting subjects. I was always looking forward to the next chapter. Many books I tend to give up on, but I couldn’t wait to get home each evening from work and read. If we take the business of leading seriously, this book is a great one to dive into. We owe it to the people that we lead to give them the best of ourselves. Leading isn’t necessarily hard. It’s applying yourself to learn the principles of leading and removing the selfish desires that we all have and put our people before us. It’s not an academic process to get certified. It’s our ability to try and learn and understand people. To put effort into it. It’s asking them EVERY DAY “How are you?” Show them that you care. It’s how we understand what makes each of our students, Soldiers, kids, and employees either break down or get fired up. It’s putting them first. Putting ourselves last. Fighting for them when needed. If it isn’t us doing all this…then who? Are we so tired and worn out that we say “others can do it?” Are we so burnt out that we cut corners? Because when we fail to lead, we put the burden on others. For me personally, my biggest fear is it gets put onto my kids, that my kids will have to deal with my “cut corners and lack of leading” in their adult life. Ultimately, they will have their own set of trials. I just don’t want them having to fix mine. If you choose to pick up this book in the future, please come back and let me know what you think. Whether everything is counter to what I think, that’s fine. It will make for good discussion and personal growth and understanding.