Talking to Strangers – Malcolm Gladwell

“I just sit back and observe. You learn more that way.”—Sonya Teclai

I hadn’t expected to spend the dawn of 2020 reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know. Entrepreneurs meet people all the time. As an entrepreneur, I have met hundreds, if not thousands, of strangers.

How do we judge them? How do we relate to them? How do we work with them? In that sense, this book made interesting reading and provided some practical answers. Reading the book required me to take some short breaks that gave me time for some reflection.

Why should one read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Talking to Strangers? The book is a powerful review of how we interact with strangers and why we often go wrong. Gladwell talks about the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we often invite conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.

Gladwell bases his book on a single notion called “truth-default theory.” As one who has studied a little psychology, I found Tim Levine’s “truth-default theory” interesting. It is not typical pop psychology, but a research-based article. According to the theory, we tend to assume that other people are telling the truth, which is the basis of trust and social cooperation. This makes it hard to spot liars. This is a good thing as people generally tell the truth and this presumption is needed for a functioning society, but it makes all of us vulnerable to deception.

The theory highlights the triggers that can help us to detect lies. As an entrepreneur, I have failed many times to spot the right people, but then that’s life. If you do not adopt a “trust first” attitude, we become paranoid.

Of course, there have been critical reviews as well. Steven Poole, reviewing the book for the Guardian remarks that Gladwell appears to find the commonplace puzzling and after much pseudo-intellectual rambling ends with more platitudes. While one may argue that Gladwell does sometimes oversimplify things, one cannot disagree with his view that he wants people to take psychology more seriously. You cannot ignore the fact that the New York-based, Jamaican-born, Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell has moved on from being just another talented writer to a cultural phenomenon. Taking some liberties with his best seller The Tipping Point, we can say that he has indeed crossed the tipping point. The thrust of the book is how we get people we don’t know so wrong. Gladwell calls it “the stranger problem.” Reviewers have highlighted an important fact not mentioned in the book—the well-known opposite phenomenon that, far from defaulting to truth, we believe only the information that fits with our preconceived biases. Both ideas are right, because the world is complicated, but Gladwell’s job is to make it seem simple.

After reading the book, I felt relieved, a little lighter given my own experiences where I had got strangers wrong so many times. I hope that we can try to understand strangers a little better.