Review: Book Club Brunch - Talking to Strangers

Written by Michelle Telling.

Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Reviewer: Michelle Telling

So, it turns out that a book titled ‘Talking to Strangers’ was not as much about ‘talking to strangers’ as the title might suggest, but more like ‘how to interrogate and get the truth from bad people’. In addition, the book was described by those Talking to Strangers Book Club NZBWNwho had managed to get through it as disturbing as it included vivid descriptions of rape, child molestation and how to kill yourself using a gas oven, among other things. In short, this book was not what we expected when it was selected for our NZBWN book brunch.

That aside, we were a small group in December (it being the season of busyness for many), and we had a lively discussion around the themes of the book, along with a side-discussion on dating tips. The group felt this was not Malcolm Gladwell’s best work and many had read and enjoyed his other titles including ‘David and Goliath’, ‘Blink’ and ‘the Tipping Point’; all of these had a scientific basis, but ‘Talking to Strangers’ seemed more a cut and paste exercise with a little commentary on each particular case discussed.

The underlying theme was that the majority of us have a ‘default to truth’ when interacting with others, as the author put it:

‘You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them’.

‘Default to truth becomes an issue when we are forced to choose between two alternatives, one of which is likely and the other of which is impossible to imagine’.

We as a society, need to believe people when we meet them – this belief underlies the forming of all relationships.

‘What we get in exchange for being vulnerable to an occasional lie is efficient communication and social coordination. The benefits are huge and the costs are trivial in comparison. Sure, we get deceived once in a while. That is just the cost of doing business’.

Many of the examples given in the book were extreme– Chamberlain meeting Hitler, the story of a top CIA spy, Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme; yet there were some takeaways from reading the book which did have relevance and use our everyday lives –

  1. We do all use unconscious bias when meeting new people – but can, and do, use this to our advantage e.g. when going for an interview, we aim to ‘look’ and ‘sound’ the ‘part’.
  2. We apply filters to assess whether to trust someone, these are based on past experiences and help us work out whether we believe what is being said e.g. current politicians…
  3. Consent was a topic of one of the chapters, relating to the rape of an unconscious young woman known as ‘Emily Doe’. While it was felt that Gladwell did not handle this chapter well, we were recommended the video ‘Consent, it’s as simple as a cup of tea’ which is well worth watching and sharing.

My final top tip, if you do read using a Kindle, and like to highlight useful sections; these can be downloaded and sent as a pdf copy to your Amazon email address – very useful when you unexpectedly ‘volunteer’ to write the review for a rather difficult book! The food and drink at Ozone, were as always, delicious; and the company and discussion engaging and enlightening