Talking to Strangers: A book by Malcolm Gladwell

13 minute read

A couple of years ago, I was about to board a plane with no forms of entertainment at hand, and I was sure that I would not be able to sleep for even one minute during my 3 hour flight. So, I picked up the book with the most interesting title- Outliers: The story of success I could find at the airport bookstore. It turned out to be a great book and changed my view on many events in the world and my definition of success. That’s how I found out about Malcolm Gladwell.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

In his most recent book, Talking to Strangers, he talks about the famous case of Sandra Bland, a black woman who committed suicide in a Texas jail 3 days after she was arrested at a traffic stop. The central idea of the book is that we suffer from biases when we are communicating with strangers, and we are not aware of those shortcomings. He explains the 3 biases with striking examples ranging from CIA double agents to poet Sylvia Plath. In the final chapter, we turn to the Sandra Bland case once again, now equipped to understand what really went wrong in the interaction of Sandra Bland with the police officer.

Fidel Castro’s revenge

A Cuban spy defects to the US, and starts talking. He tells the officers at CIA, that almost every spy that worked for CIA in Cuba at the time was in fact a double agent feeding the information that was fabricated by Cuban officials and approved by Fidel Castro. For years, even the best agents in CIA had no idea. This situation was not an isolated case. Over the years, CIA faced many embarrassing stories involving double agents in many parts of the world.

Why can’t we tell when a stranger in front of us is lying to our face?

Getting to know der Fuhrer

Many high-ranking officials and politicians, including the then Prime Minister of England, repeatedly met with Hitler and spent much time with him. But almost all of them misjudged his intentions about invading Czechoslovakia. After each meeting, they believed that Hitler was a reasonable man, he did not want to enter into war.

On the other hand, the people who followed Hitler from the news and other intelligence reports had much better view of his intentions than the people who spent time with him face to face. When people meet with strangers, they think they can discover the stranger’s intentions, and make out if he’s lying or not. But, that is almost never the case as this book tries to prove.

Similarly, when judges decide if they should set a high bail or release the defendant, they misjudge most of the time how likely the defendant is to commit another crime while he/she is outside. Orchestras make better hiring decisions if they audition the candidates behind screens. In other words, seeing the musicians or the defendant does not help, but hurt the decision-making.

We have a conviction that we know others better than others know us. We think we can easily see into people with just minimal clues. We are very quick to judge strangers. But, strangers are not easy.

Default to truth

The concept of defaulting to truth, is one of the central problems introduced in the book. The story begins with one of the best and the brightest Cuba analysts in the CIA. After years of promotions and rewards, she turns out to be a double agent working for Cuba. Once again, for years no one sees it coming. Even though there were many warnings and red flags about her, the management choses to ignore and explain them away.

An experiment made by Tim Levine helps to formulate the concept of defaulting to truth. The scientists entice the subjects to cheat, and interrogate them about the cheating. Then, another set of subjects watch the interrogation videos and decide who among the videos lied and who told the truth.

This experiment shows that when we face a situation where we have to decide if we are being lied to, we default to truth. We assume, we try to explain away the warning signs to the point that they become unexplainable. Only after our suspicions overcome a certain threshold, we decide that what we hear are lies.

The holy fool

This part demonstrates the default-to-truth principle that was introduced before. It goes over the Sandusky and other child abuse cases. It talks about how the officials, supervisors, parents, and even the victims themselves defaulted to truth when they are faced with reports and allegations of abuse. The key witness in the Sandusky case denied any wrongdoing on Sandusky’s part, he even invited Sandusky to his wedding. Years later, he visited Sandusky’s home to show his son. Because of his seemingly inconsistent behavior, his testimony was dismissed in the trial.

In the Nassar case, co-workers and friends still thought that he was wrongfully accused even after the police found 30 000 child pornography photos on his computer.

In the Sandusky case, 2 of his supervisors were charged with conspiracy because they ignored the reports of possible child abuse. The president of the university wowed to protect them, because he thought they were wrongfully accused. We think we want our managers, employers, and police officers to be vigilant and want them to never to default to truth, be suspicious of every one all the time. But, in reality, we want them to protect us in times of adversity, like the president tried to protect his employees against the accusations.

The transparency fallacy

Transparency in this context is the idea that you can read what people actually feel from their facial expression and demeanor. But, experiments show that people may show different expressions or behave differently from one another. Some people even lack some expressions. For example, when some people are in fear, their face may become blank, appearing to an observer as cold, heartless, or brave. However, they may be extremely afraid at that moment. We think we are very good at identifying people’s emotions from their facial expressions. But, in fact, those readings are flawed, and mislead us most of the time.

The paradox of talking to strangers: we need to talk to them. But, we are terrible at it and we are not honest with one another about how terrible at it we are.

A short explanation of the Amanda Knox Case

Amanda Knox’s roommate is killed and she becomes the prime suspect in the murder investigation mainly because she reacts to tragedy from what people expect. We go back to Levine’s experiments mentioned above. The experiments aim to see if people can tell liars from honest people. The experiments show that we judge people based on their demeanor. Well-spoken, confident people with a firm handshake who are friendly are seen as believable.

We also believe that people are transparent. So, if their behavior matches our idea of how a liar should behave, we think they are lying. We can identify correctly only if an honest person acts as an honest person, or a liar looks like a liar. But, we fail miserably when there’s a mismatch. That is, if a liar acts like an honest person, or an honest person looks like a liar. In Knox case, she was very angry instead of sad when she found out that her roommate had been killed. Therefore, people saw her as cold-hearted and assumed that she was somehow involved in the murder.

According to Levine’s experiments, the failure to identify mismatched people is common in law enforcement agents, police, judges. This shows that even professional lie detectors fail to identify liars correctly.

But you are trying to find the answer in my eyes … You are looking at me .. Why? These are my eyes. They are not objective evidence. Amanda Knox

The fraternity party

Two young people who do not know each other well meet at a party, have a conversation, drink too much alcohol. When 2 people are drunk, can they consent to have sex?

There’s no clear consensus on what legally and socially constitutes consent. In the polls, people’s opinions on what constitutes consent to have more sexual activity differ wildly.

When people are drunk, we assume that they are disinhibited, which means that their inner persona is unleashed. What we see is the real character of the person. However, new research suggests a different term: myopia. When we are drunk, we lose the ability to think ahead, we lose the long-term consequences and decisions. Instead, we focus on what’s immediate and in front of us. Alcohol does not bring out what’s been inside you, it changes your whole understanding of your true self.

If you drink a lot very quickly, you enter a state called blackout. In blackout state, you can function as a normal person if you only need to do tasks that require short-term memory. But, you will have no recollection of what you did when you were blacked out.

Youth in the present drink much more than that of young people drank in the past. Especially, women are drinking more. The traditional gap between the consumption of women and men significantly narrowed. Because of their physiology, women are more susceptible to having blackouts. They pass the threshold of blackout territory with much less alcohol.

We hear everywhere that one of the solutions to the problem of sexual assault is to teach men how to respect women more. But the problem is not how men behave towards women when they are sober. The problem is how men are transformed by high amount of alcohol.

2 big central puzzles of the book

  1. We default to truth when we interact with strangers.
  2. We assume that people are transparent.

In the next chapters, we will add a third puzzle (the concept of coupling).

What happens when the stranger is a terrorist

US Army uses sleep deprivation and waterboarding to make the terrorists talk. But, under torture the brain chemistry of the people change, resembling PTSD victims. They lose their long-term memory, have chemical imbalances in their bodies. Some studies even suggest that they are not aware of what is happening around them when they are being interrogated. They cannot even identify who interrogated them in a line up. So, all of this puts their confession under doubt. You don’t know if they are telling the truth. You don’t know if they are remembering the past correctly.

The soldiers were given a memory test before and after a mock interrogation, their memory and coherence dropped to the levels of a 5-year old kid.

The lesson from this is we are limited in the amount of information we can gather about strangers. The harder we try, the more elusive it becomes.

We can never know the whole truth about a stranger. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.

Sylvia Plath (coupling)

The famous poet Sylvia Plath killed herself by putting her head inside a town gas oven. The suicide method of her choice was accessible, painless, easy, and 100% guaranteed. If she had not had access to an easy means of committing suicide, would she have tried something else?

The idea of coupling tells us that some behaviors are coupled to a particular place and time (context). When town gas was replaced with natural gas in homes, the suicide rates in the UK plummeted.

Another example is the Golden Gate bridge. Of the 515 people who tried to jump off the bridge but were stopped unexpectedly, only 25 tried to commit suicide again. So, they were ready to commit suicide at that particular moment in that particular place. Despite these facts, many people in authority or in the general population believe that people who want to commit suicide will find another way to do it at another time.

This brings us to the third central puzzle of our book.

We do not understand the importance of the context in which the stranger is operating.

The Kansas City experiments

All around the world, 50% of all crimes are concentrated in 3% of any city. This was discovered in the 70’s. Kansas City police experimented with this information. They wanted to increase the patrols in that specific 3% of the city where the crimes are concentrated. But, the police do not have the right to stop and search civilians without probable cause. To work around this, they decided to stop motorists with minor traffic infractions, and look for another cause to search the car while they are processing the traffic ticket. This is called proactive policing or haystack needling. As a result, overall crime in the city reduced by half.

Other cities in the US started copying the same method with one major difference. They focused not only on the 3% problem areas at the times when crime is the highest, but they started proactive policing in the whole city. So, the goal of police became not reducing crime in problem areas, but to wrote as many tickets as possible to everyone all the time. Constant stopping and ticketing for minor offences (broken taillight, wrongly placed licence plate, irregular headlights) created a mistrust between the population and the police. Also, many tickets caused financial and legal problems for a lot of people.

Sandra Bland

We turn briefly to the Sandra Bland case that was mentioned in the beginning. The police stops Bland because she changed lanes without signaling. But, Bland changed lanes because the police car was approaching to her and she moved out of the car’s way.

She is very annoyed. It is apparent in her demeanor. Officer sees a hostile woman with possible criminal involvement, the woman sees a bad-intentioned police officer writing a ticket for no reason.

The woman had just gotten a new job, moved to a new city, had mental problems, and had financial problems because of unpaid traffic tickets.

The police officer was not doing something extreme. He was doing exactly what he was supposed to.

  1. Not defaulting to truth. Looking for threats and lies and criminal intentions everywhere.
  2. Believing that Bland was transparent. She’s nervous so she must be hiding something.

On top of everything, Sandra is mismatched. She looks like a criminal to the officer, because of her demeanor. But, she is not a criminal.

when NC police department applied Kansas City method, the number of tickets they issue rose from 400 000 a year, to 800 000 a year. In those extra 400 000 stops, they found only 17 guns. Was is worth alienating and possibly harming 399 983 people just to find 17 guns?


We have to talk to strangers. There’s no way around that. But, there are things that we can do to avoid the pitfalls that were mentioned throughout the book.

  1. We could start by not penalizing people for defaulting to truth. If you are a parent whose child was abused by a stranger, and you could not figure it out, it does not make you a a bad parent. Abandoning all trust to all people is bad for the whole society.
  2. Accept that our ability to make out strangers is limited. Show restraint and humility when dealing with strangers.
  3. Sandra Bland incident was not an incident between a bad police officer and a black woman. It was a collective failure if the police to follow aggressive policing in a faulty manner.

    Because we do not know how to talk to strangers, what do we do when things go awry with strangers? We blame the stranger.