Book Review on Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers”

Posted by Kristin Arnold on December 16, 2019

After five New York Times bestsellers and six years, Malcolm Gladwell published his latest book “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know.”  Since I am constantly talking with, meeting, and facilitating “strangers,” I was intrigued with this book that balances his theory with stories in typical Gladwell manner.

Using high-profile cases (most of the cases were vaguely familiar to me, but lacked the detail provided), Gladwell asserts that talking to strangers is not as easy nor straightforward as we think.

He presents us with two puzzles:

  1. Why can’t we tell when a stranger is front of us is lying to our face?  Gladwell posits: “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.”  As humans, we “default to truth” until we have enough “red flags” to push us over the threshold of belief.  I call this “assume positive intent.”  He further claims that society could not function if we all were doubting everything all the time.
  2. How is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them? Because we tend to judge people’s honesty based on their demeanor – the “transparency” of their behaviors.  “Well-spoken, confident people with a firm handshake who are friendly and engaging are seen as believable.  Nervous, shifty, stammering, uncomfortable people who give windy, convoluted explanations aren’t.”  Turns out we are “bad lie detectors in those situations when the person we’re judging is mismatched.”

Which leads to the paradox of talking to strangers: “We need to talk to them.  But we’re terrible at it….and we’re not always honest with one another about just how terrible at it we are.”

No, this book is not about talking with strangers in the literal sense.  I talk to them all the time!  It is about checking in with your assumptions about that stranger in front of you and how you wish to proceed with the relationship.

I wish I could say that Gladwell then offers some actionable advice on how to get better at “talking with strangers.”  Alas, the book is more about heightening our awareness of the dynamics of when you talk to strangers.  And that, in and of itself, is the actionable advice.


KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CPF, CSP is a high-stakes meeting facilitator and professional panel moderator.  She’s been facilitating teams of executives and managers in making better decisions and achieving greater results for over 20 years.  She is the author of the award-winning book, Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.

Recent Articles:

Standout Tips to Make Each Meeting MATTER

What to Look For When Hiring a Meeting Facilitator

Stretch your Leadership Team’s Ability to Think Strategically

Skip to content