Talking to Strangers – 5 Quick Lessons

Malcolm Gladwell’s book: Talking to Strangers was an intense and powerful examination about the way we interact with people we don’t know. It is most definitely a book I recommend highly because it will help you gain some critical perspective on the strangers you’ll encounter from now on. The book interestingly uses real-life examples from human history combined with scientific data to guide us through the lessons. You will gain so much from reading this book, so please, just read it. Until then: Here are 5 quick lessons learned from Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell.

1 – First impressions are often misleading

When you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME (ASS+U+ME). We know that we are complex individuals that can’t be put in a simple box that defines us, unless that box is “Complex human being”. However, we are so quick to jump to conclusions about strangers which is wrong! First impressions aren’t an accurate depiction of anyone! In talking to strangers, Malcolm Gladwell uses the story of Sandra Bland combined with scientific data that validates this point: Our first impressions of others have less to do with them and more to do with ourselves assuming things based on very little real information.

Transparency is a myth. An idea that we picked up from watching too much television and reading too many novels where the hero’s jaw-dropped with astonishment or eyes went wide with surprise

Malcolm Gladwell – Talking to Strangers

2 – We watch too much TV

As much as we hate to admit this, television has a major influence on the way that we view the world. If you want to get to know someone, ask them about the shows they’re obsessed with, chances are they’ve adopted many of the social rules and mannerism from that show. In Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell uses the hit show Friends as an example, in friends, you can understand an entire episode even when it’s on mute because the face expressions from the actors are so theatrical and transparent. So much so, that when we meet someone that seems standoffish and shy we assume they’re unkind.

We tend to judge people’s honesty based on their demeanor. Well spoken, confident people with a firm handshake, those who are friendly and engaging are seen as believable. Nervous, shaky, stammering, and uncomfortable people who give winded and convoluted explanations are not seen as believable.

Malcolm Gladwell – Talking to Strangers

3 – We can be wrong about someone we’ve known for a while

We are very judgmental! But talking to strangers shows us that it’s not entirely our fault, it may be an evolutionary characteristic that humans developed over time as a social species. In Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell uses real-life examples from human history Chancellor and Hitler, combined with scientific data to bring this point home. Apparently, Hitler is a charming human being that could’ve fooled most of us given the opportunity! We assume that open, funny and charismatic means “trustworthy” but too often, that’s not the case.

4. Face expressions can vary from place to place

As a smiley human being, I can assure you, that my smile isn’t well received everywhere that I travel. In some countries, a smile isn’t an indication of good intentions. Face expressions and mannerisms can be greatly varied from place to place. In Talking to Strangers, Gladwell tells the story of an indigenous isolated society in Papua New Guinea, that doesn’t watch “Friends” or other american sitcoms that are secretly controlling all of our faces and how we perceive them. Here, Facial expressions, including fear, have very different meanings than they do for us westerners. This is proof that expressions and mannerisms aren’t everything.

When we confront a stranger we have to substitute an idea, a stereotype for direct experience. And bad stereotypes are wrong all to often.

Malcolm Gladwell – Talking to Strangers

5. Your views of people are strongly influenced by how you view the world

If you think the world is a terrible and scary place, you’re probably not out in the world spreading sunshine while making new friends on a daily basis. Your perception is your reality. Many people have negative biases based on the group they’re in and how they’ve been trained to think. In Talking to Strangers Malcolm Gladwell tells the famous story of Sandra Bland, an African american woman that ended up in jail after a failure to signal infraction, and later committed suicide in her cell after 3 days. African americans have been vilified for as long as slavery has been justified. It helped to convince Americans that African people were closer to animals than they were to humans; that they were unintelligent, violent and wild human beings in desperate need of discipline and guidance. This mentality still exists today, it took centuries to adopt, and it’s taking centuries to abolish. Talking to strangers takes a critical look at each person’s perspective, then the history behind their perspective and then the science behind it.

What an amazing book! Please note, that I haven’t scratched the surface here, not even a little bit! There is absolutely no way to summarize an entire book in 5 lessons, and that isn’t my intention at all! Please, go buy and read the book yourself. I’ve made it easy for you here:


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