Book Review: Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell

Book Review: Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers is not a business book. Nor a management book. As you read it, however, you start realising how much we don’t know ourselves as humans. Its subtitle What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Knowbecomes almost scary after having read the book and having understood how difficult it is to communicate with other people.

This book by Malcolm Gladwell, author, among other works, of the book The Tipping Point, is a punch in the face. Result of three years of research, despite its title, the book is not really about strangers. Lies, misunderstandings and escalating confrontations have, after all, been known to occur even within marriages. And even in organisations. Which is why I have decided to still write this short review here, despite the book being slightly off-topic.

Talking to Strangers is a typically roundabout exploration of the assumptions and mistakes we make when dealing with people we don’t know. Or that we assume we don’t know. 

What we have always assumed is wrong.

We all assume we would behave in specific ways in some conditions. But the reality, as Gladwell shows, is different. Authority, culture, training, objectives we have focused on, all create environmental aspects that may hinder our capability to understand and react to a situation. There are many cases that Gladwell examines, from the contentious arrest of Sandra Bland by the side of the road in Texas to the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath. Stories that seem unrelated one to the other, but offer the material to build an alternative account of our self as human beings.

Two of the cases analysed drive interesting consequences if applied into an organisational context. The first is what the author explains as The Queen of Cuba, mainly the failure by the US secret service to recognise that a Cuban informer had infiltrated them at a very high level in the organisation.  Which brings to an almost shocking conclusion statement.

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.

Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers

The other compelling case is linked to the Kansas City experiment. Essentially it was an experiment that led to an improvement in the way police patrolled the city of Kansas City, and that allowed for excellent results in that specific community on lowering crime. The issue is that our mind does not grasp an important concept: coupling. Coupling is the idea that behaviours are linked to particular circumstances and conditions. So what worked in Kansas City did work because of the specific conditions it was set into. But most police authorities across the US have replicated a strategy outside of those conditions, which led to essentially no results.

Talking to Strangers in an organisational context.

Translating these two principles in an organisational context is relatively significant. I think that the first point can be easily linked to all the cases where, in organisations, we don’t recognize a negative leader that is portraying unethical behaviours. How often did it happen that leaders in the organisation have been able to pursue real fraudulent schemes, with all the clues being available, but without formal recognition by colleagues and collaborators? Gladwell is careful in not suggesting we should go to the other end and not trust anybody.

To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society.(…)

But the alternative—to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception—is worse.

Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers

The second case has a lot to do with the inability that many of us have on coupling behaviours with situations. How often do we see a “best practice” and we assume we can copy and paste this beyond any practical behavioural consideration? We have already seen that cultures themselves create barriers in copying best practices, we need to know to recognise that in any case, we need to think of the Human factor of every event and look at what has helped to make this happen.

Conclusion

To conclude, this is not a book that will pass by easily to many of us. In the beginning, you might laugh at the misjudgements of the CIA or DIA, but then when you suddenly realise that we all act similarly, you will get an unnerving reaction. This book does not call to action but instead wants to create awareness about a limit that we have, which has positively influenced the way we have created our societies, but it is a limit.

Because we do not know how to talk to strangers, what do we do when things go awry with strangers? We blame the stranger.

Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers

How do we consider this in our Organisation Design? What about our Culture? And our Leadership models? There’s a lot to reflect…

And you? What do you think?

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Talking to Strangers in a nutshell

<strong>Talking to Strangers</strong> Book Cover
Talking to Strangers Management, Psychology Allen Lane Hardcover 400 Pages Buy on Amazon

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