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Talking to Strangers

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

By Malcolm Gladwell
13-minute read
Audio available
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

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.

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

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

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

By Malcolm Gladwell
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
Synopsis

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.

Key idea 1 of 8

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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