What Ricky’s Reading

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know

by Malcolm Gladwell

You can tell when a stranger is deceiving you, right? We see people do it all the time on television. Liars show some of those classic signs – eyes darting, a little twitch, or maybe a bead of sweat on the brow. If we can see them, we can tell. Neville Chamberlain met Adolf Hitler on three occasions, and said, “I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” Unfortunately, Chamberlain was wrong. As it turns out, we know nothing about strangers.

Malcolm Gladwell masterfully illustrates how little we truly know about strangers, and why our interactions with them so often go wrong. Why was Larry Nassar able to fool everyone for years? Why was Amanda Knox wrongfully suspected and charged with murder? Why did Sylvia Plath commit suicide? These are just a few of the case studies he cites along the way.

We often use tools and strategies to make sense of the people we don’t know. And many times we get it wrong. Gladwell posits that we have a tendency to default to truth. This is why the crime is often times perpetrated right under our noses and we fail to see it until it is too late. There were red flags along the way, but “were there enough red flags to push you over the threshold of disbelief?”

What about facial expressions, body language, and overall demeanor? Surely those are indicators we should pay attention to when interacting with strangers? People are transparent, right? Not so fast. Sometimes a liar acts like an honest person and an honest person acts like a liar. “We are bad lie detectors when the person we’re judging is mismatched.” Hitler was able to dupe Chamberlain because he acted honest. Amanda Knox was suspected of murder because she was Nervous Nelly. She acted guilty.

On the flip side of this, believing strangers are truthful and transparent is also something that holds our society together. Who wants to live in a world where no one speaks or looks at someone because they are so skeptical? It seems we have a conundrum on our hands, and maybe Gladwell has the solution.

My thoughts: Gladwell has a writing style that is unique. He hits you with scientific data throughout his books, but you can’t help but turn the page even if you really aren’t that into science. Talking to Strangers confronts us with data we don’t want to believe because it goes against the way we think. “Because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, what do we do when things go awry with strangers? We blame the stranger.”

Ricky Statham is director at Oneonta Public Library. Visit the library Monday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., to check out this or another great book.