Talking to Strangers

by Malcolm Gladwell

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on October 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435

The Nature of People's Judgments About Others

One of the main arguments in Gladwell's book is that many people are not accurate in how they judge others. This is especially true for strangers—particularly those who are presented to the masses in the media—but it also extends to people we know personally. These inaccurate judgments can easily lead to lasting misconceptions and appreciable consequences. Gladwell analyzes various cases (including those of Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, Amanda Knox, and Adolf Hitler) in order to address the multiple processes and outcomes of such errors in our judgment of other people. Gladwell dissects why people like the figures mentioned were judged incorrectly—whether for good or for ill.

Gladwell concludes that we project our own personalities and concepts of ethical conduct onto others. For instance, Bernie Madoff was initially considered a business genius because he presented himself as someone who is intelligent and capable of handling complex finances. Therefore, he was trusted by the public. However, people misjudged him based on the common assumption that Madoff knew things that others don't know; as a result, he was able to defraud investors of billions of dollars over decades without detection. The US Securities and Exchange Commission investigated Madoff multiple times without unearthing proof of his elaborate Ponzi scheme, in part because they insufficiently explored accusations by sources.

Deception by Manipulating Perceptions

Because of the way people judge others—that is, based on the tendency to project their own intentions onto others' actions—it can be relatively simple for immoral individuals to mislead the public. People like Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, and Adolf Hitler were accomplished liars, and Gladwell examines how they were able to influence the ways others perceived them by withholding information and hiding behind innocent facades, thus exploiting the common habit of trusting others.

Trying to decipher people's true intentions has become increasingly critical in today's world, especially as business and politics work on an interconnected global scale. Relations with complete strangers are dependent on trust and first impressions, and it can be relatively easy for people to take advantage of this necessity.

The possibilities of deception and misjudgment are ultimately rooted in our lack of shared communication skills, especially with strangers. Gladwell points out that communication is the first indicator of shared trust; fittingly, then, poor communication can result in poor—or even unequal or unethical—relationships with others. In the case of black activist Sandra Bland, her arrest by police officers after a routine traffic stop stemmed from miscommunication and tragically resulted in her death, which was assumed to be a suicide, inside a jail cell.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access