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Sunday, December 8, 2019

Book Review: Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell

Around the holidays is an utterly perfect time to read this book. When better to improve our understanding of how we miscommunicate with others, especially those we don't know well, as when we're thrown together in travel, in parties, and even with some family members we might not know well (or might even be new family members.) In this book, Malcolm Gladwell explains both why we miscommunicate (millennia of evolution in very small groups never imagined we'd be communicating with hundreds, let alone thousands of people we barely know or literally don't know in the blink of an eye), and how--through assumptions, generalizations, biases, and a lack of contextualization.

He uses a few well-known extreme examples of communication gone horribly wrong--Sandra Bland, Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Brock Turner--to illustrate his thesis. And I really have to give a big pitch for the audiobook version of this book. He says in a note at the beginning that he was very much influenced by his podcasts and how they're produced, and so he included actual audio from Sandra's Bland's vlog on YouTube, from the police camera of her traffic stop, and of Amanda Knox narrating the audio version of her memoir. Hearing their own voices was very powerful. He also recorded several interviews he had with experts and included audio snippets of those, and actors read out other bits of dialogue. It made for a much, much more interesting listening experience than a lot of audiobooks that are simply read straight-through by a single narrator, and I ended up listening to the whole thing in just 2.5 days. I'd recommend the audio over the print version for this particular book as I think it gives such a rich, nuanced, and multifaceted experience, particularly with the Sandra Bland situation.

This is another book that stuck with me for days and weeks. I thought several times about the default to truth problem in the Jerry Sandusky problem. I know I do this. I do it to a fault. My husband sometimes seems to be on the opposite track (which is no better--a complete lack of faith in humanity did allow one accountant to figure out very, very early on that Bernie Madoff was a Ponzi schemer, but it's also what caused Ms. Bland's police officer to assume terrible things about her.) And I am more aware of it now, but I never thought of it as a problem--I figured simple that as a society, we all get along best if we assume the best about one another until proven wrong. But it turns out there are inherent problems in that mindset, as well. Such as assuming a colleague you know well and like, couldn't possibly be doing anything unthinkable with that little boy you saw him with in the shower. And this hardwiring in our brains is how these situations repeat themselves. As far as simple, everyday interactions go, it's probably fine. But that traffic stop started out as a simple, everyday interaction too.

I know the book has been controversial, and I understand why. But I also think that people need to read it before making blanket assumptions. Particularly as this book is entirely about how blanket assumptions, one way or the other, are almost always going to lead us astray. Read it and judge for yourself. Personally, I found it very eye-opening.

I listened to the digital audiobook which I downloaded from my local library via Libby/Overdrive.

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