Talking to Strangers, a book that left me confused

One of the most hyped books of last year is Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell. It was always not available in libraries, and stayed long on top of the best seller list in bookshops, so when I had a chance, I immediately jumped at it and grabbed an electronic audio book version, just perfect for my morning run.

If you have never listened to an audio book before, this will be the perfect one to start your listening journey. The audio was well crafted, read by the author himself, with lots of audio scripts and interviews and paired with an interesting background music and songs. Not the usual boring monotonic recitation of the text. I was pretty surprised and impressed. The team really put in effort to making the listening experience different and pleasurable.

When it comes to the content, the book started out great, with a suspenseful spy story. I love the large number of case studies and stories presented, it made the book really a page turner. Moreover, most of those stories are quite recent, so you can easily relate to them and link them with current events happening in the world nowadays. That’s what I love about this book. It’s like a curated collection of current affairs and their meanings.

However, what left me confused was the theories derived from the stories, and the lessons that the author wanted to impart to us. After all, every great book should teach us something new that benefits our lives, and that is what Malcolm wanted to do here as well. Unfortunately, instead of learning something, like how best to talk to strangers, I was left confused when the book ended. The villains became the victims, and what was black and white in the beginning suddenly turned to a greyish color, and nothing seemed to be so sure at all. And I kept asking myself, should I talk to strangers, and how should I do it, so that I will not be fooled and lied to or taken advantage of?

As the author rightly said, it’s almost impossible to avoid talking to strangers totally in this time and age. The world has become so big that you encounter strangers everyday. And I guess what he wanted to tell us is that, when you talk to strangers, you should not be too quick to judge or prejudice him or her, not too quick to draw conclusion, but also not trusting totally without a doubt or sliver of suspicion. You should tread your steps carefully, with caution and humility, and be alert to all the potential red flags. Humans are complex, and many are misfits who do not act or speak following social norms. And talking about social norms, they may not even be norms at all, since they differ greatly across cultures and groups.

Despite all the confusions, I still feel it’s a good book that’s worth reading. All the case stories are interesting, and may spur you to research further to know more, especially the spy case, the murder case and the campus assault case. And despite the fact that the morals of the stories did not really land on me, I managed to derive some useful conclusions that are applicable to me:

  • Exercise caution and humility when talking to strangers, especially for the first time
  • Watch out for red flags and ponder on them, but don’t immediately jump into conclusion,
  • Everyone is different and there are misfits, so don’t judge others quickly based on social norms
  • When in doubt, place more emphasis on objective evidence than subjective thinking and opinions
  • If you have some doubt, but not enough doubt, you should start looking more closely and see if something is amiss
  • Humans are quite bad at assessing others, especially based on expressions, behaviours and reactions. So don’t jump into conclusions right away. Not everyone is transparent. And even transparency is in the eyes of the beholder.

That’s it. Happy reading. And tell me what you think once you finish the book. Do you agree with me or do you think otherwise?

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