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Talking to Strangers summary

What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know

3.9 (2601 ratings)
21 mins

Brief summary

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell is an investigative exploration of how we make sense of strangers. He uses multiple real-life examples to argue that we interpret strangers through biases that lead to misunderstandings and even tragedies.

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    Talking to Strangers
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    We consistently overestimate our ability to judge strangers. 

    Solomon is a bail judge in New York State. His work comes with weighty responsibilities, which he takes seriously. He reads defendants’ files, of course, but he also knows how important it is to talk to them and look them in the eye. After all, a file won’t describe the glassy, dead-eyed stare that’s a sign of mental instability. It won’t reveal the shiftiness reflected in the failure to make eye contact. 

    Unfortunately, when it comes to assessing people, Solomon and his fellow judges fared worse than machines when this quality was tested against them. 

    In a 2017 study, Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan examined bail decisions in New York. He gave an artificial intelligence program the same basic information the judges had received – age and criminal record – and asked it who of the 554,689 defendants should receive bail. The result? The defendants released by judges in real life were 25 percent more likely to commit a crime while out on bail than those the computer would have selected. 

    Judges think they can evaluate strangers based on the look in their eyes and a conversation. In fact, we all think that! But we’re wildly overconfident about our ability to make character judgments based on this flimsy evidence.

    In a 2001 experiment, psychologist Emily Pronin asked a group of people to quickly fill in the missing letters in words like ‘GL_ _’ or ‘_ _ TER.’ Afterward, Pronin asked them to analyze what their word choices said about them. Most said that their choices were meaningless. Whether they’d written ‘glum’ or ‘glad’ didn’t reflect their personality or even their mood. 

    However, when Pronin showed the group lists completed by other people, everything changed. Clearly, this person was goal-oriented, the group decided, based on the words chosen. Another was obviously tired. While people were confident that their own word choices were random, they easily read into strangers’ word choices.

    Pronin’s research points to a simple truth. With the smallest glimmer of information, we judge people we don’t know at all. We’re confident in our own complexity, but strangers are easy. Well, if there’s one thing these blinks show us, it’s that they are not

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    What is Talking to Strangers about?

    Talking to Strangers (2019) is a powerful exploration of how little we know about the people we don’t know. It explores how we misjudge and misunderstand strangers, sometimes with terrible consequences, making a powerful case for more tolerance and patience in our dealings with others.

    In these blinks, you’ll learn

    • why real life is nothing like an episode of Friends;
    • how the look on our face when we are surprised is itself surprising; and
    • that artificial intelligence can assess a person’s character better than high court judges.

    Talking to Strangers Review

    Talking to Strangers (2019) is a thought-provoking exploration of how we interpret the intentions and behaviors of people we don't know. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Through compelling real-life stories and examples, it challenges our assumptions about how well we understand strangers, prompting us to rethink our interactions.
    • The book sheds light on the miscommunications and misunderstandings that can arise from our limited ability to accurately interpret others, providing valuable insights into human behavior.
    • With its engaging storytelling and fresh perspectives, this book presents a vibrant and captivating exploration of the complexities of human interaction, making it far from boring.

    Best quote from Talking to Strangers

    The issue with spies is not that there is something brilliant about them. It is that there is something wrong with us. 

    —Malcolm Gladwell
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    Who should read Talking to Strangers?

    • City dwellers living in a crowd of strangers
    • Malcolm Gladwell fans
    • Those who think they’re a good judge of character

    About the Author

    Malcolm Gladwell is a renowned writer and thinker with five New York Times best sellers under his belt. The author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, Gladwell has been included in TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” list and is one of Foreign Policy’s top global thinkers. 

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    Talking to Strangers FAQs 

    What is the main message of Talking to Strangers?

    The main message of Talking to Strangers is that we often misjudge others and misunderstand their intentions, leading to tragic consequences.

    How long does it take to read Talking to Strangers?

    The reading time for Talking to Strangers varies depending on the reader's speed, but it typically takes several hours. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Talking to Strangers a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Talking to Strangers is a thought-provoking read that offers valuable insights into human behavior and the consequences of miscommunication. It's definitely worth reading.

    Who is the author of Talking to Strangers?

    The author of Talking to Strangers is Malcolm Gladwell.

    What to read after Talking to Strangers?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Talking to Strangers, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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