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Talking to Strangers by Malcom Gladwell: 3/10

"Talking to Strangers" is Gladwell's newest book, and I listened to it in audiobook.

Key Ideas:

  • Truth Default Theory

People tend to believe what others say.
In the absence of discordant information, people's normal "default" mode is to believe others.

  • People are really bad at spotting liars

It doens't matter if someone is in the CIA or a professional interrogator: they are bad at spotting liars.
Trained professionals are better than average individuals when the liar is mismatching in his behavior. But if he lies with a straight face, then trained professionals are no better than random chance.

  • People act depending on their surroundings

If you effectively clamp down crime from one street, it's not true that it will move to the next street.
And if you remove prostitutes from one street, it's not true that they will just move to another part of town.


  • Exaggerated cultural relativism

Gladwell tries to show us that there are no universal facial expressions, but he sounds very unscientific and takes it too far.
He says that people smiled in ancient Rome, but it didn't mean what it means today to us. Gladwell actually says:

"but such curling (of the lips) didn't mean much in the range of significant social and cultural gestures in Rome".

What a bunch of baloneys.

  • Predatory sensationalism

In his quest of grabbing readers' attention, Gladwell seeks the most gut-wrenching stories he can find, from suicides to sexual abuse to child abuse.

There is one report with the original voice of Trinea Gonczar when she decided to turn her back on Larry Nassar.
And it's so incredibly touching it got me bleary-eyed.

But at the same time, it got me angry at Gladwell.
Instead of providing helpful information, it feels like he is trying to turn trash talk show TV into an audiobook.

  • Amanda Knox case: Gladwell does exactly what he says one should not do

The whole "Talking to Strangers" says that you can't really know someone just by interacting with them.

Fair enough.

He then says that Amanda Knox was targeted because she looks good and behaved inconsistently (read here an analysis on why Amanda Knox seems like a sociopath).

And what does he do next?
He proceeds to build a case for Amanda Knox being a "good girl" based on his own personal impression of Amanda Knox.

And to prove his point, he even becomes ridiculous.
Says Gladwell, with his best "attention grabbing voice":

The police officer ought to be the quirky, inappopriate girl in a culture far different from her own say "tada", and realize she's just a quirky girl in a culture far different from her own

There he goes again with his cultural relativism.
In which culture exactly is normal to act like Knox did, in a house covered in blood, with the dead body of your flatmate in the other room? You can read more criticism of Gladwell's own point of view.


Typical Gladwell book, with its typical strengths -few- and weaknesses -lots of them-.

Or, at least, that's what you will think if you are like me who reads to seek wisdom, better understands the world, and develop as an individual.

This is a typical Gladwell book:

  • Pick a famous or attention-grabbing story (from the Bible, from sex and crime, or something with racism)
  • Make it sound exciting so the readers loves the book
  • Twist the story to make it sound like everyone always got it wrong
  • Try to find an unexpected lesson learned

But in "Talking to Strangers" he just takes it too far.
There isn't even a common thread, just a string of what feels like random, disjointed storytelling.

So, should you read "Talking to Strangers"?
Yes if you want to learn more about storytelling.

No if you want to learn in general, or if you seek self-development.

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