Talking to Strangers

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell is his latest book that takes his curious look on society and applies it to interactions between people.

In it, he uses his signature style of stories to illuminate underlying principles. I can recommend the book, here are some of the principles I gleaned from my reading:

  • People default to truth
    • We need this for society to work
    • But if someone is ‘mismatched‘ then things go array
    • E.g. Bernie Madoff
  • We think we can ‘read’ other people
    • But actually this doesn’t work with mismatched people
    • E.g. Judges are really bad at using this ‘information’ from the suspect
    • Life is not life ‘Friends’ (series), we don’t show our emotions so perfectly to the world
    • E.g. Amanda Cox who was goofy, but not a murderer
  • We must recognize our inability to read others
    • And at the same time remember that our world is built on trust

From another review:

1. THE DEFAULT TO TRUTH PROBLEM We do not behave, in other words, like sober-minded scientists, slowing gathering evidence of the truth or falsity of something before reaching a conclusion. We do the opposite. We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.

2. THE TRANSPARENCY PROBLEM Transparency is a myth.

How people are feeling inside often does NOT perfectly match how they appear on the outside, which means we are misjudging other’s intentions.

3. THE MISMATCH PROBLEM We are bad lie-detectors in those situations when the person we’re judging is mismatched.

A mismatch is where someone’s level of truthfulness does NOT correspond with the way they look. I think someone is honest based on how they look and act but in actuality, they are lying and I can’t tell the difference.

4. THE COUPLING PHENOMENON The first set of mistakes we make with strangers… have to do with our inability to make sense of the stranger as an individual. But there’s a second category of error that has to do with our inability to appreciate the context in which the stranger operates… Coupling is the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.


We could start by no longer penalizing each other for defaulting to truth… We should also accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers… But far more important than a little grace and humility over what we cannot do, we should be clear about what we can [do]… There are clues to making sense of the stranger. But attending to them requires humility and thoughtfulness and a willingness to look beyond the stranger, and take time and place and context into account.