Talking to Strangers – Malcolm Gladwell

Published in 2019, Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers couldn’t be timelier. Gladwell opens with the case of Sandra Bland, a young African American woman pulled over by a white police officer in a small Texas town in July 2015. Supposedly, she fails to signal a lane change. What begins as a routine traffic stop quickly escalates into an argument, with Officer Brian Encinia dragging Bland from her car and arresting her. Three days later Bland commits suicide in her cell.

What differentiates Gladwell’s account of this all too familiar event is his exploration of the mindsets of Bland and Encinia as examples of the ways we misunderstand each other based on assumptions about race and policing. In his typically methodical fashion, the author systematically takes apart common beliefs about how we communicate.

Gladwell cites results of surveys indicating fundamental differences in what college-aged men and women see as sexual consent. He outlines scientific research indicating that the effect of alcohol on human behavior is not at all what we think it is.

His exploration of why eyewitness accounts are so unreliable and how people frequently fool us with their facial expressions should be sobering to anyone interested in criminal justice. And torture, as Gladwell explains, is counterproductive for reasons we would never suspect.

As always, Gladwell’s sixth book is a masterpiece of storytelling. He makes dense topics clear and turns intuition on its ear. Talking to Strangers should be required reading for all of us.