Talking to Strangers Malcolm Gladwell Review

I had this book on the shelf for some time but was only inspired to pick it up when I felt the need to be connected with my fellow humans more than ever. Understanding, compassion and faith in each other seem so critical but yet so elusive when we are literally living at a distance from our loved ones, colleagues and customers.

Malcom Gladwell’s books get described as everything-you-know-is-wrong page turners, and Talking To Strangers certainly fits the bill. It leaves you questioning the assumptions and judgements you make about others; we can learn a lot from its lessons.

Gladwell examines the ways we misinterpret and fail to communicate with each other. He presents us with compelling case studies and fascinating research that show just how bad humans are at spotting deception, even at close quarters, and how wrong we are to think we are good judges of character.

There are colorful characters: tragic poets, Cuban double agents, charismatic conmen and catastrophic misjudgments. The book’s introduction and final chapter are about Sandra Bland, the African American woman who was stopped by a white highway patrolman in small-town Texas in 2015 and was found hanged in her cell three days later. At this moment in time, there is much to learn from Gladwell’s thoughtful analysis of Sandra Bland’s arrest and much that we can apply in our business interactions.

Talking to Strangers: Top 5 takeaways

We should stop assuming and realize no one’s transparent

Transparency is the idea that visible behavior and demeanor provide an authentic, reliable window into the way someone is feeling inside. It’s a seemingly common-sense assumption that turns out to be an illusion. We believe we can make sense of a stranger through observation. Spoiler: we can’t. Research shows humans are abysmal at judging each other and face-to-face contact actually makes this worse because we put such faith in these impressions.

We are incapable of spotting deception

We judge people’s honesty based on their demeanor. Despite credible evidence, investigators failed to spot the billion-dollar deception of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. A seasoned financial journalist who interviewed Madoff recalls, “it was almost impossible to believe he was a complete fraud”.

We think we can judge people and what throws us are mismatches – honest people who act shifty; liars who act honest. Tim Levine’s research into deception detection shows even experienced law enforcement agents are terrible at identifying who’s telling the truth, especially with ‘sincere acting liars’. In Levine’s research only 14% of those cases were correctly spotted as liars.

Behavior is tied to unseen circumstances

We place so much emphasis on our belief in transparency that we ignore the context a stranger is operating in. And of course, we likely don’t know much about those circumstances. We try to make sense of a person’s behavior as simply an individual but ignoring the context for their behavior can lead to serious, and sometimes catastrophic misunderstandings.

The real-life application that came to mind for me was how this can help us when handling workplace conflict. Drawing on Gladwell’s insight, instead of responding to those visual cues of demeanor, body language and facial expression in a moment of perceived conflict, we take a moment, step back and remember that we are not in full possession of the facts. Give the interaction some space and distance to really reflect on the wider context.

We need to assume truth for society to function

Humans default to ‘truth’. As a rule, we believe someone even when we have doubts about them until there are enough red flags to push us beyond doubt. And we shouldn’t give ourselves a hard time about that – defaulting to truth makes sense and assuming truthfulness is important for society to function. Lies are rare and abandoning trust as the default position would be tragic.

… but sometimes a ‘Holy Fool’ is useful

The Holy Fool is an archetype from folklore – the outcast truth teller free to blurt out inconvenient truths or question things the rest of us take for granted. Like the small boy who calls out the king’s nakedness in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Every culture has its own version of the Holy Fool and they serve a useful role. What sets the Holy Fool apart is a different sense of the possibility of deception. They don’t default to trust. Sometimes we need a Holy Fool on the team to be the naysayer, the boundary breaker and the burster of over-optimistic bubbles.

Talking to Strangers: Top 5 quotes

  • “We think we can see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues… we are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy.”
  • “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.”
  • “We tend to judge people’s honesty based on their demeanor. Well-spoken, confident people with a firm handshake who are friendly and engaging are seen as believable. Nervous, shifty people who give convoluted explanations aren’t.”
  • “Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative – to abandon trust… is worse.”
  • “We should accept the limits of our ability to decipher strangers.”


If you’re using intuition rather than real, solid feedback to understand your customers better, Gladwell’s book is a cautionary tale. Give Customer Thermometer a spin today, and get closer than ever to what customers and employees really think. Try it free, no credit card needed: