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Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers is the latest book out by journalist Malcolm Gladwell. He is a writer for the New Yorker and has had an amazing career as an investigative journalist. I have to make a confession here… Tom has been telling me for years I would love his books and I but them off because they are non-fiction books, but this one caught my eye and it’s fair to said it’s had my hooked since the first page.

Malcolm Galdwell sets up his book by telling the story of a young African-American lady, Ms. Sandra Bland who had just accepted a new job in a small town in Texas. She had driven across the USA from Chicago to go to the interview and she was excited to be moving away from the big city and her new job. She was driving away from the University after her interview and a police cruiser came up fast behind her, so as all of us would do, she moved out of the way of the speeding cruiser, who then flashed his lights and pulled her over because she failed to signal when she changed lanes.

Understandably annoyed, after all, she wouldn’t have had to change lanes if he hadn’t have sped up behind her, the exchange between Officer Brian Encinia was heated to say the least and ended in him trying to remove her from her vehicle, forcing her to the ground and arresting her for felony assault. Three days later Ms. Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell. She had fashioned a noose from a plastic bag and hung herself.

His book then takes us on a detailed journey assessing ways in which we handle strangers and talk to them, how we understand them and in which ways our attempts are at the very least flawed if not downright dangerous.

Each chapter takes a seemingly random event (although nothing in this book is random) in history and delves right into it. Gladwell begins talking about Cortés landed in Mexico in the 1500’s and analyses his experience meeting Montezuma the Aztec leader of Mexico. The great explorer met with Montezuma with two translators and it all went so well that the Spanish took Montezuma as hostage and then murdered him, destroyed the beautiful Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was destroyed and as the two sides went to war it is believed that twenty million Aztecs perished, if not in the war then by the foreign bugs brought with the Spanish invaders.

Had the conversation between Cortés and Montezuma gone differently what may have happened? Would the Spanish have found allies in the Aztecs?

But it only begins there really, as Gladwell goes on to discuss spies during the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis. Cuban spies who were able to work at high levels in the American government, how people like Bernie Madoff got away with running huge Ponzi schemes and why it takes to long to really identify that these things are going on even when concerns are raised?

Why is it that judges have such a hard time judging bail and probation for people that they are looking at and talking to. Why police, FBI and CIA agents are actually all a bit useless at spotting a liar? Why is it that when historic sex abuse allegations happen we nearly always discover that people had concerns but seemed to do a basic investigation and then go no further?

Gladwell raises Tim Levienes Default to Truth theory, in which his experiments show that we nearly always default to truth in a situation and give the benefit of the doubt. We are not bred to spot liars all the time because otherwise society would be pretty tough.

He moves on to discus Facial Action Processing, the numbered system of each movement made by our faces during expression and whether or not expression is truly universal (it isn’t!), and whether expression is a true reflection of what we are feeling and is going on inside (it isn’t!), and how mismatching can create a situation where people are suspicious of us.

Amanda Knox is a prime example of someone who mismatched. As far as the Italian police were concerned her actions were that of a guilty person. She was behaving strangely. But, she was a teenager from half way around the world who was away from home for the first time in a foreign country. Amanda’s behaviour to those that knew her probably seemed just like…well… Amanda.

As the chapters go on he discusses terrorism, torture, alcohol and sexual assault, suicide and crime as well as more I am probably forgetting. Each chapter could stand alone on its own he wanted it to. Each chapter is well structured and put together.

Gladwell goes on, presenting no shortage of incredible stories with amazing research behind them and each on is so carefully and wonderfully explained. But, the thing about this book is that it tackles extremely serious subject matter, from the moment you open the cover, to the moment you close the book having finished the book, but at no point does it feel heavy or too much. His writing is really easy to read and you find yourself sucked in instantly.

But, what is particularly clever about this book is Glafwell’s ability to take all of these seemingly wildly different situations, I mean what’s a Cuban spy got to do with Sandra Bland? Yet Gladwell neatly ties everything together with a bow that makes you start to look at everything differently. I WILDLY recommend reading this book. It is an education all on it’s own. Bravo Mr. Gladwell. Bravo!

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