Talking to Strangers

by Malcolm Gladwell

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his book Talking to Strangers, published in 2019, Malcolm Gladwell explores many cases of people interacting with strangers and how those encounters have shaped history. Several of the book's main figures are explored below.

Sandra Bland

Bland, a black woman, was pulled over by police while driving in Prairie View, Texas, in 2015. Because she questioned why she was being stopped, Bland was labeled as combative and arrested. Three days later, she was found dead in her cell after committing suicide. It was later revealed that Bland had attempted suicide about a year before her arrest, after suffering the loss of her baby. If the police had been more attentive, they would have realized that Bland was not a threat; if anything, she should have been on suicide watch. Gladwell suggests that a breakdown in communication—as well as the police officer's assumptions about race and inability to calmly defuse the situation—lie at the heart of this tragedy.

Jerry Sandusky

Sandusky is a former Penn State coach who was convicted of molestation in 2011. Gladwell informs us that, although Penn State President Graham Spanier and other administrators had been notified about troubling episodes between Sandusky and students, they chose not to follow up on the incidents or chastise Sandusky in any way. Gladwell attributes this inaction to the "default to truth" syndrome: when Spanier was informed about the claims against Sandusky, he instead elected to believe the most plausible—or easiest—explanation, which was that "Sandusky was who he claimed to be." Sandusky was such a beloved figure at Penn State that nearly everyone was reluctant to believe he was actually responsible for the crimes of which he had been accused. Gladwell believes that this instance shows that our preconceived ideas about other people are often not only incorrect but also can cause great harm.

Neville Chamberlain

Gladwell refers to Chamberlain's seemingly naive belief in Adolf Hitler's assurance that he was not interested in invading Poland. In a letter Chamberlain wrote to his sister, he mentions a special "double handshake" that Chamberlain erroneously assumed made Hitler a man of his word. In this case, Gladwell concludes that Chamberlain was so eager to believe that he and Hitler were in agreement that he thought he understood Hitler's true character.

Bernie Madoff

Madoff, the former head of an investment securities firm, is another key character is this story. Madoff, who pled guilty to his role in a Ponzi scheme in 2009, had been scrutinized for years due to his seeming infallibility in predicting market success. Gladwell notes, however, that some members of the Securities and Exchange Commission were becoming suspicious about Madoff. Although members of the SEC spoke with Madoff about their doubts, he assuaged their fears enough to override their gut feelings that something was very wrong. In other words, because they were—generally speaking—honest people, they assumed Madoff was too, so they automatically "defaulted to truth." Thus, Madoff's deceit continued unabated for years.

Additional Figures

Others included in Gladwell's analysis include the American student Amanda Knox, who was charged with murdering her Italian roommate; Montezuma, the ruler of Tenochtitlan, in the context of his initial meeting with Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés; and Ana Montes, an American who spied for Cuba. Gladwell concludes that we must accept the fact that strangers' motives are sometimes unknowable; nevertheless, we must continue to attempt to bridge communication gaps in pursuit of the truth.

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