Talking to Strangers was authored by Malcolm Gladwell. The book is the most thought provoking of the several I have read from the author. It is not a self-help manual as the title might imply. Instead, Talking to Strangers takes a hard look at the many communication failures of recent times.
The subject matter is intense. Rape, murder, pedophilia and suicides join terrorism, con men and unsuspected spies as the focus of this look at miscommunication. Quite a few of the stories will leave the reader unsettled. And many if not all the stories will be familiar. Thus, these are the stories behind the headlines.
Malcolm Gladwell Tackles Tough Issues
For those of you unfamiliar with Gladwell, he has quite an interesting writing style. At times the writing feels disjointed because it is not chronological. He circles back again and again. In the end, his points are valid. And very, very potent.
Gladwell begins and ends Talking to Strangers with the arrest and subsequent suicide of Sandra Bland. A case I had almost forgotten about. Bland was a young African-American hassled in a rural Texas setting by a dogged Hispanic police officer. An unfortunate occurrence which led to Bland’s death and Officer Encinia’s termination of employment. But unfortunate is too benign. For, Bland’s death, like many others was an absolute tragedy that should not have happened. Gladwell provides the background that leads not only to this particular incident, but a better awareness of the causation of conflicts from Ferguson to George Floyd.
The above case is just one of many examples of the lack of communication found throughout life. Key points are given from failure to recognize a spy to spotting a pedophile. All stem on the theory that people expect the best and reject the worst.
Gladwell posits that society is better operating in this fashion and that in contrast, assuming the worst of people contributes to situations like the Texas traffic stop of Bland. But, it also creates opportunity for the Sandusky’s of the world. So, a Catch-22.
Talking to Strangers and Local Customs
The most salient part of Talking to Strangers in my opinion was the focus on cultural differences. This came up with both the Amanda Knox case and the fraternity rape case. One involved mismatched behavior expectations due to cultural differences between countries. The other accentuates how the United States differs greatly in the approach to alcoholic consumption.
Gladwell devotes a chapter to each of these examples. The former is not surprising to anyone having travelled internationally. However, the latter was quite interesting and ties somewhat into the post on Linking Liver Disease to Socioeconomic Events.
The author carefully contrasts the drinking patterns of The Camba of rural Bolivia to that of American college students. In this comparison, information on the rapidity of alcohol consumption and the impact on the brain is included. Fascinating facts that I was unaware of.
The conclusions drawn in both cases are on target. It is difficult if not impossible to interpret the meanings of strangers. Insight becomes blocked in both the case of cultural differences and brain impairment. Thus challenges remain. And questions. Should the onus be put on travelers? Possibly. On binge drinking? Absolutely, yet the drinking is a cultural phenomenon. In America, we do not look at the science behind the problem.
Talking to Strangers is an important book to read. The author gives good insight into some of the mistakes being made. Both from assuming everyone is good as well as mistakes made when there is a universal approach to believing everyone is a danger.
However, certain groups may need to take a pass. Any victim of pedophilia or rape and anyone at risk of suicide would certainly have trouble reading the details. Furthermore, the same holds true for close family members of victims.
On the other hand, quite a bit of understanding can be gained by reading through the traffic stop sections. So, those not understanding what is happening between police and minorities in the United States, Talking to Strangers points out where communication fails. This is critical if we hope to move forward. And we do need to move forward.
So naturally I highly recommend Talking to Strangers.