A Quick Review of Malcolm Gladwell's "Talking to Strangers"

Updated: May 7

I have read all of Gladwell's major books and this is by far his greatest achievement. Reading some of the reviews for this book revealed to me how desperately we need this book and the wisdom contained therein.


It is our modern tragedy that every event of import is labelled in a simplistic, easy to follow manner. We see a cop shooting a black person and believe it can be chalked up to racism. We hear about a rape case and never wonder how parents could have been present in the room when it was occurring and still let it happen. Over and over we hear about misunderstandings and mistakes that are labelled as the disease of our society and the corruption of some class of people.


Life is never that simple. Communication and inter-relational experiences must be analyzed from all angles in order for us to understand it. This means we need to understand what is going on inside the head of a young, drunken boy who rapes a young drunken girl. Even if it hurts us and even if it were to reveal that he was confused. We need to know why in as much detail as humanly possible this terrible event took place; otherwise any action we take to rectify it may exacerbate the problem.


As someone who teaches 19th century literature and poetry, I found one of the most interesting bits of information the word association test. In that test, participants are asked to fill out a series of words that have blanks in them. "G L _ _ " For example. I filled out "G L O W" Gladwell filled in "G L U M." There were many other words to fill out.


The most interesting part of this exercise was not the words someone filled in, but the response of the participants. When test subjects were asked what their responses said about their characters, the majority of people said "nothing." The words were random, meaningless. If, like Gladwell they filled in words like "GLUM" or "DEFEATED" they would say, something like "I'm not a pessimistic person at all! These were just random words. Meaningless." The examples of this went on and on.


Now here was the interesting part When those SAME participants were given a sheet filled out by ANOTHER person, and then asked what their words meant about THEIR character, the participant almost always explained their thoughts about the person's character. "Oh this person is pessimistic for sure." "This person is probably very competitive." "This is an untrustworthy person." And on and on.


Again, these are the same people who a moment earlier said the words, when referencing themselves, meant nothing at all about their characters.


This should be our great project as individuals, to explore the inner world of human beings. To understand that someone else's inner life is as deep and rich as our own. This requires more than chanting the words "Be empathetic," it requires deep study and contemplation.


Gladwell does not teach us how to do this, he merely reveals the importance of this project. He reveals how we can look at every single news event of the recent past and explore the event from a radically different lens.


Tennyson wrote in "In Memoriam:"


I sometimes hold it half a sin

To put in words the grief I feel;

For words like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the soul within


This must be the primary area of our concern, the 'soul within." And we have only words to do this; words, not only our own, but of the great men and women who came before us. I implore you do not judge this book by its reviewers, judge it by the necessity of our times. We need to see better or we won't make it.


Buy the book here:

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know


*P.S. I listened to the audio book, which was the best audio version of a book I've ever heard.