Everyone in Your Life is A Stranger

A Quick, Biased Overview of “Talking To Strangers” by Malcom Gladwell

How many times have you been surprised by the people you thought you knew?

Those who lied while looking at you in the eye?

The flirtatious dude with the girlfriend?

The parent who had another family in the other town — or country?

“How did I not see this coming?”, you’d ask, only then making links to all their actions and finally realizing that all along, there were signs.

You simply didn’t have enough doubt.

In Talking to Strangers, Mr. Gladwell takes us through a winding road to make the following point:

We, humans, are terrible at communicating. Nothing is ever what it seems, and we’re not biologically built to doubt our fellow man. Therefore, we must be humble.

There’s a lot to be said about the author’s ability to make a great argument well-packaged in beautiful storytelling and expert sources.

After my personal experienc with his book Outliers and hearing opposing arguments to what Mr. Gladwell says, I went into this book understanding that although it was going to be an amazing experience, I had to take everything with a grain of salt.

By the end of the book, this thought was echoed even more for me.

It doesn’t stop me from picking out two points that stood out and which, lover of Gladwell or not, anyone could use in their own lives.

1. We’re Terrible at Reading Each Other

In the book, there’s a deconstruction of the first episode of the sitcom Friends which serves to make the point that what we know about emotions, and how we express them, is essentially taught.

What we consider as a face that shows sadness or horror in 2020, could be quite different from what 14th Century humans did.

This also cuts across generations.

What the argument goes on to point is that we’re just not capable, in our default state, to know what’s going on in someone’s mind simply by watching their faces and body language.

One of the arguments used early in the book was to express that computers are better at making bail decisions than judges because they don’t need to see the defendants. This article describes the evolution of using Artificial intelligence in court in a way that supports the argument.

What Mr. Gladwell says is that seeing people, could actually be misleading our decisions.

Again, he makes his arguments really well. And because I have had aspects in my life where I was totally mislead even though I thought I was being cautious, I am tempted to believe him.

The two points he uses are transparency and default to truth.

Default to Truth posits we believe people until they’ve given us enough reason not to — enough doubt.

With Transparency, we assume that what we see is what we get. That if someone is fidgety, dodging eye contact, or making nervous motions, they must be hiding something.

Just that sentence up there, using Mr. Gladwell’s arguments, is flawed.

There is no such thing as “nervous motions”. Why?

Because of coupling to the context.

Context (When and Where) Matters Incredibly

Someone who hates police officers because of personal experience, is more likely to get “nervous” or “irritated” by police officers.

It doesn’t mean they’re concealing a weapon or running away from a crime.

Without knowing where someone is coming from, mentally and historically, we cannot point why it is that they’re doing what they’re doing.

Without context, there is no link between what we see and what it means when we’re talking to people.

And because this is almost always the case, whether it’s with our parents, or siblings or even our co-workers, we’re always talking to strangers.

It’s a chilling realization: we never really know what’s happening in someone’s mind. What we read could actually lead us away from the truth. And scarier, we want to believe that they’re telling the truth because not believing this is damaging to society.

Imagine a world where we doubted everyone. We didn’t trust the Stock Market. We didn’t trust our Uber driver. We didn’t trust our teachers. The person at the grocery store. You didn’t trust any author.

What kind of world would that be?

The book serves as an investigation into the death of Sandra Bland, the 28 year old African American woman who was apprehended by a Texas Trooper, sent to jail, and committed suicide 3 days later.

I had tears in my eyes while listening to the author’s conclusion. They were legitimate arguments, backed with expert opinions, anecdotes which both educated and opened a world for reflection.

Especially with what is going on in the world right now.

We assume transparency in emotions and words. We assume that a criminal would “act” like a criminal. That someone cannot look in your face and lie.

One aspect, especially with this eye-contact, which stuck with me, is a conversation I’ve often had with my wife.

In Cameroon, and most African countries I presume, a child is not allowed to look into the eyes of anyone older than they are. In fact, maintaining eye-contact is considered rude.

Consider that for a moment.

And consider the Western meaning of someone who refuses to maintain eye-contact.

Now, imagine this to be a black man who just moved to the US.

Consider how many times he’s heard about police brutality. Imagine his nervousness when he’s pulled over.

Can you see him sweating? Can you hear him fumbling through his words?

Does his accent help? How about the smell of his first car he’s been taking naps in as he rushes from work to school and home most of the week?

Does he look fully suspicious now for an African man who is doing his best to be a hardworking respectful man?

There’s much to be said about the validity of many arguments Mr. Gladwell brings to the table.

Yet, I learned a lot of facts and a lot from his writing style.

I will be getting a hard copy when I can since I listened on Audible. The Audio book was an enriching experience. From the author’s voice, to actual news clips, to live interviews and voice actors — as well as the music by Janelle Monae, I was lost in the whole episode and emerged with a new, albeit doubtful, experience.

If anything, I am all too aware how hard it is to really communicate. And maybe it’s this need for humility that the author wanted to express after all.

Maybe when we finally understand that we’re not good at reading people, and that context plays a primordial role, maybe then we’ll learn how to truly talk.


Cameroonian writer and video creator. Featured in LEVEL and P.S. I Love You. I write about building relationships and personal transformation.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store