Book Review: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I almost never read the reviews of others before writing my own review. I don’t want to be coloured by the opinions of others and reviews are, always, merely our opinions turned into judgements. There’s no point me writing a review then if I’m just going to parrot the views of others.

In the case of Gladwell’s new book however, Christmas and lockdown issues meant there has been a gap between finishing the book and writing this review. For this reason, I checked a few reviews really just to refresh my mind about the content of the book. I was fairly certain I knew what I thought and what Gladwell writes about and, as it turned out, I was right. What surprised me, however, is just how critical many of the reviews were. In particular, Andrew Ferguson of The Atlantic was most critical, bringing up issues which a) missed the point , and b) seemed more like a vendetta rather than truly salient issues. I get the feeling Gladwell could have discovered the Higgs Boson and Ferguson would have dismissed it as irrelevant and badly researched.

So what is it about ‘Talking to Strangers’ that causes such invective? Gladwell certainly attempts to cover a difficult and far-reaching topic – just why and how do conversations with strangers go so wrong. He gives examples reaching back into history – the 16th century first meeting of Cortés and Montezuma – through to the ill-fated meeting of Chamberlain and Hitler, through to the case study which ‘bookends’ the book – the interaction with a police officer which led to the suicide of Sandra Bland in 2015 just three days after her arrest. In between, we learn of how Cuban spies made fools out of Intelligence Services, strange theories such as the idea that converting all gas appliances over a ten year period from 1967 prevented thousands of suicides in the UK, and the centrepiece theory underpinning the book, Tim Levine’s ‘Truth Default Theory’.

That’s an awful lot to take in, and it is perhaps understandable that some people find the book rambling, or that Gladwell is making tenuous links. In Ferguson’s case, he dismisses anything of value as being ‘obvious’ when clearly it isn’t, or wasn’t at the time. From my point of view, I found it fascinating the idea that if someone is prevented from easily killing themselves, they won’t necessarily try it some other way. It’s eye-opening and both statistics and my own experiences in life tells me there’s something behind this and not that Gladwell is cherry-picking to prove his own bias. Likewise, the author’s critique of police techniques based on psychologists’ profiles and how this led to the altercation with Sandra Bland is absolutely riveting.

Nevertheless, not all criticism is undeserved or is through misunderstanding. Gladwell’s conclusions are not always very convincing and there is some mileage to the complaint that he’s talking about different things and not always about the pitfalls of talking with strangers. There is a mix between being deceived – by people we know or feel we have come to know – and getting into arguments with actual strangers. Despite the continuing thread of the Bland case, there are definitely times when it easy to forget whatever the hell it was the book was supposed to be about.

Nevertheless, assuming you don’t pick up the book because you have a burning desire to totally understand every nuance of how to speak to people you don’t know (and if you do, I suggest you are naïve and should give up such a search), then this really is a rather fascinating foray into the strange world of – to put it more accurately – the interactions of others, whether strangers or not. Personally, I highly recommend the audio version of the book where you can listen to the actual key people involved in many of the cases Gladwell introduces us to. These recordings make the whole subject come alive and takes it out of the cerebral, and distanced, pursuit and puts it firmly back in the real world. There’s much to be said for this book and the importance of trying to understand others better if we want a more peaceful world and one in which no innocent person ends up dying of suicide ever again. ‘Talking to Strangers’ is no bad place to start.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, will be published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.

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