On Talking to Strangers

Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite podcasts. Malcolm is a master storyteller. On the podcast, he introduces a historical event or social phenomenon. They are not always new event or phenomenon that I did not know about, but in the end, it always leaves me with the chill because the narrative sheds a different light that it always feels so new. In the 4th season of Revisionist History, he advertises his new book “Talking to Strangers”. I had to read it.

Majority of the book explains three common human behaviors on talking with strangers: default to true, fallacy of transparency, and coupling of behavior. Default to true is a human tendency to assume good intent of a stranger until there is overwhelming evidence to prove otherwise. For fallacy of transparency, Malcolm explains how inaccurate it can be to read a stranger’s mind through visual cues like facial expressions. Coupling of behavior describes how a human behavior is coupled with the situation as much as it is with the person’s personality.

The examples and researches that he writes in the book to demonstrate these behaviors are fascinating and I would recommend this book just for that. However, the book does not end there.

The final part of the book focuses on Sandra Bland case. It can be seen as another police mistreatment of black people by bad cop. The book, on the other hand, looks at this incident from a different angle. He uses the three behaviors as lenses to look into how successful Kansas City police experiment ends of disseminating a distorted message to the police department of different areas, and how dangerous it is to build a system without accounting for the complexity of talking to strangers. To him, Sandra Bland case is one incident from systematic failure, that was bound to happen.

The content was fascinating, but the story telling method is what really got me hooked. The building blocks that he used are so familiar to us. After all, the three behaviors that he explains are not revolutionary. We are kind of familiar with those ideas. Sandra Bland case is also not so new. We all are familiar with the cases of police mistreatment of black people. Yet, when he used these familiar lenses to tell a story about a familiar case, everything felt so fresh that it really stuck to me.

We all look at the world through our own lenses, but in many cases, we are oblivious to that. Reading this book not only helped me understand the complexity of talking to strangers and the danger of not accounting for that complexity but also got me to think about what lenses I use to look at the world. What kind of lenses do I default to when absorbing the world around me? Do those lenses provide perspectives that will help me to push myself toward my goals? Additionally, another questions that I should ask myself are about the diversity of my lenses. Am I exposing myself enough to different lenses to understand the world to the fullest?

Anyways, it was a very enjoyable book with a lot of fascinating stories and research. I would highly recommend this book!

By the way, you may have already noticed it, but reading this book probably won’t help you to get better at talking to strangers if that is what you are looking for. :)

Written on November 9, 2019