Book Review: “Talking to Strangers” By Malcolm Gladwell

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.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: “Talking to Strangers” By Malcolm Gladwell

  1. I have never done a book review myself either, or even read one, but I think you did great! This book sounds really interesting and I’ve heard this author is awesome. I like when someone can take my preconceived notions on a topic and force me to look at them from a completely different perspective. I feel like you stand to gain so much more when that happens as opposed to staying stuck in the same thinking patterns all the time. I like how you mentioned the story of the woman and the traffic stop and how it somehow led to her committing suicide but you didn’t give any more details than that. Now I HAVE to read the book and see what happened! I also think the ‘threshold of doubt” theory sounds intriguing. I would love to figure out what mine is and would love to hear what you think yours or anybody else’s is. I just wanted to also mention that I wholeheartedly agree with your statement that leadership isn’t “hard” in THEORY, but in practice it definitely can be. I have learned that firsthand throughout my time here in Alaska in supervising both Soldiers and civilians. I hope in reading this book and picking your brain a little more I can continue to get a little better at it everyday.

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    1. Yea so the “threshold of doubt” is something I’ve been trying to identify. He doesn’t really go into detail on how we discover what that threshold is. He leaves it open because obviously we would have to discover what our’s is. And I think that threshold is going to fluxuate quite often? I think our emotions, personality, circumstances, situations, and the individual we are assessing is going to play a role in that. I think we can assess what our baseline is for ourselves and over time regulate our fluctuation. I think the best trainer for this is our kids if anyone has them. For those who don’t know, I got two girls ages 12 and 4 and one son aged 8. All with different personalities and approach to life which is awesome. So when a kid approaches me with an issue like so and so did this and the other says well so and so did that, before, I’d strictly look at their faces and push them to give me some non verbal signs. But I allow myself to not jump to those conclusions as children are still developing those emotions that they are trying to get a hold of and can often set of the wrong signal. My oldest is bad at when she gets nervous and is in trouble, she smiles because she knows she’s had it. First time I saw this, I took it as extreme disrespect. But realized later that its her defense mechanism.

      As far as the leadership comment, I think there should be a sense of maybe stress and pressure that resides in you that makes you feel that leading is difficult. It shows that you care about their development of the individuals and the organization. I tell the kids all the time when they are nervous about something that it means that you care and that is good. When you become a toxic leader is when you do everything for your personal gain and when you feel you have achieved all knowledge, understanding, and know all the principles of leading. You quit growing. That’s when you need to take a step back and evaluate yourself.

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  2. Nice book choice Randy! I’m a long time listener to Revisionist History, but never read one of Mr. Gladwell’s books, so I decided to start with this one. I applaud your choice to read and consider viewpoints out of the normal military mindset on leadership. I thought that Talking to Strangers was very entertaining and thought provoking. My favorite take away, for now at least, was the importance of using the proper techniques to communicate ideas or to gather information and how being negligent in those tasks can lead to catastrophe.

    I really enjoyed this book and think that many of the points he conveys in this book can be beneficial for everybody. The importance of communication and being able to effectively connect with others is extremely important for all leaders, military and civilian. Being the father of a mismatched child, you’ll know what I mean if you read the book, I found many insightful tidbits that I hope to apply to my home life as well.

    Keep up the good work Randy!

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  3. Hey man thanks! So I’m the opposite. I’ve read a handful of his books (and about to read another after I finish the current book I’m on) but haven’t listened to his podcasts yet. I need to commit to doing a couple this week and see how I like it. I’m actually going to subscribe after I send this.

    If you like this book for its thought provoking, read his book Blink that I mentioned in here. And another good thought provoking book I’m going to re-read soon and review on here is called “Think like a freak” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. They have a podcast entitled Freakanomics I believe.

    Thanks for the post man and keep contributing. That’s my goal is to share ideas and use each other to be better today than we were yesterday and even better tomorrow.

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