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Book Summary of Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

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

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This book as the subtitle suggests is all about the people that we don’t know. It is the people that we interact with for the first time, the people we have just interacted with superficially and how well we can understand these people.

Book Review and Summary of Talking to Strangers
free summary of Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell on StoryShots

1-Sentence-Summary: Talking To Strangers helps you better understand and accurately judge the people you don’t know while staying patient and tolerant with others.

Book Summary of Talking to Strangers

Malcolm Gladwell sets us up with a couple of puzzles that highlight some of the problems we face when talking to strangers.

Spies and Diplomats: Two Puzzles

Puzzle #1

The first story goes back to the communist regime and a Cuban intelligence officer who is working all over the world spreading this ideology. But he grew tired of Fidel Castro.

So he decided to jump ship. He was working in Czechoslovakia at the time, undercover for the Cubans. And he escaped with his girlfriend in the trunk and drove to Germany, where the closest US embassy was.

He walked into the embassy and said he wanted to talk to the highest-ranking official there. Once he finally got a face to face meeting, he told them everything about Cuba’s infiltration in the CIA.

He revealed how much the Cubans had injected themselves into the CIA’s international operations. He told them about all the double agents that were working for the CIA by day, but they were taking meticulous notes every single day, and everything that happened during that day would be sent back to Cuba every single night.

He betrayed Fidel Castro. But what did Fidel Castro do about this? Once he knew that everything was exposed, he decided to rub salt in the wounds of the US and exploit this opportunity.

He created a special television program to show all around Cuba, exposing how stupid the Americans were and how they so easily infiltrated their whole entire operation.

And we’re talking about CIA here. It’s the most stereotypical undercover intelligence organization. On this television show, they reviewed a lot of their secrets on national TV as well as showing how they beat the US at their own game.

It’s not like enough with some old entrenched organization that somebody had infiltrated, but this was the CIA. It is meant to be the most intelligent organization in the world. Their whole job is to try to understand strangers, people’s motives and catch people out doing the wrong thing.

When they looked back through all the records of these double agents and all of their regular reviews that the CIA had done with their agents, not a single red flag was detected. So there was no suspicious activity from anyone inside the CIA, who was doing regular reports on the agents.

These people were able to somehow infiltrate the CIA and trick everybody who’s meant to be part of this organization.

So the first puzzle is why can’t we tell when a stranger right in front of us is lying to our face?

Puzzle #2

Gladwell follows with the second puzzle here. Back in April 1938, just before WWII, there were a few members and a bit of tension happening around the world, especially with Hitler and Germany. There was a risk that Germans would invade the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia. So, Neville Chamberlain, England’s prime minister at the time, thought he should learn about Hitler.

It was an interesting time. Hitler was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938 before World War II started. Not many of the world’s major leaders knew anything about him. Neither US President, Franklin Roosevelt, nor Joseph Stalin had ever met him. Winston Churchill, who was the prime minister after Chamberlain, tried to meet him twice over tea, but Hitler stood him up both times.

So none of these major world leaders had met him, and they’re all a little bit suspicious of him. But contrast that to Neville Chamberlain who thought it’s better to go sort this out and meet him face to face. So he decided to have a few face to face meetings with him.

After one of these meetings, he said to the press that I feel I have established certain confidence, which was my aim. And on my side, despite this guy’s hardness and ruthlessness, I saw in his face, and I got the impression that this was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word. Chamberlain said that I felt like both of us fully understand what is on each other’s minds.

It’s like a job interview as well. What most companies do is they’ll have different rounds of interviews, maybe group interviews, one on one interviews, a whole range of people who are looking at the job applicants and the candidates. Trying to get a sense of them as a person and through surface-level discussions, try to understand that they’re going to be a good employee, worker or leaders.

They are trying to understand these strangers just from a few of these interactions. Sometimes it works out well, but it’s probably not the best way to truly understand someone.

Chamberlain is fell under the same spell. He had met Hitler a couple of times, looked in his eyes, shook his hand, and he got a sense of this person. He tried to understand where he’s coming from and what his motives are but he was completely way off the mark.

So we think that this extra personal information we’re trying to gather will really help us to stride much better, but it really does the opposite.

So this is the second puzzle. How is it that meeting with a stranger can sometimes make us worse and making sense of that person rather than not meeting them?

“You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them.” 

– Malcolm Gladwell

So what have we got here?

We’ve got these CIA officers who can’t make sense if their spies are on their side or on the enemy side, prime ministers who can’t understand their adversaries, and of course, that led to serious consequences later on.

We’ve got people who are struggling in the first impressions of a stranger, who are struggling when they’ve had months to understand a stranger and people struggling with it when having met someone only once, but also struggling when they’ve met them multiple times.

We’ve got people struggling to assess a stranger’s honesty, their character, their intent. It’s a complete mess. And if these are some of the people at the top of the world, then the everyday person is going to struggle just as much, if not more.

This book is about some of the reasons as to why strangers are so difficult to understand.

TruthDefault Theory (TDT)

Gladwell illustrates the Truth-Default Theory (TDT) through a few studies. In the first study, scientists invited students to their lab and gave them a trivia test with a cash prize. They were given a partner to work with to answer some of the questions. Like all these kinds of studies, the partner was a bit of an undercover part of the study. They’re usually trying to persuade the other person into cheating.

Obviously some people in the population fall into cheating on the test, but some people are honest and they don’t end up cheating. They had a few people monitoring this situation and what they did afterward. It wasn’t a test to see if people cheated or not. It was a test to see what they did later.

So later they were asked if they cheated. Some people were a bit flimsy, in this case, some people would say, Oh, no, no, I didn’t! Some others would say: “Ask my partner, they will confirm that”

So there was a real range of responses here from of very fragile to very confident. Across this whole range, there was a bunch of liars and cheaters who were very confident. And there were some who were very not confident. There were people telling the truth who are very confident, and people telling the truth, who are very not confident. So it was difficult to try to understand if somebody was telling the truth or not.

Next, they extended the study, so they had videos of 22 liars and 22 truth-tellers. This part of the study took another group who analyzed these videos and they made a decision whether the people on the video lying or not.

And interestingly, people correctly identified the lies only 54% of the time. So it’s basically just a little bit better than a coin flip in terms of guessing who the liars were.

You’d think it might be pretty obvious to work out if somebody was lying or not. And what they found out was that people were really good at working out when someone was telling the truth. So they were way above 50% in identifying truth-tellers. But they were really bad at working out when someone was lying. So there were below 30% of working out if somebody was lying or not.

And this is what he calls “Truth-default theory”. We all default to the truth. Most of the time we think people are going to be telling us the truth. The only time that we think they might not be telling us the truth is if there’s some kind of trigger that prompts us to analyze what they’re doing.

Most of the time, if these triggers aren’t strong enough, we just assume people are telling the truth. We just default to the fact that people are telling the truth.

Next, they showed the videos to some law enforcement agents. These people had over 15 years of interrogation experience. You’d really expect them to do much better than average.

It turns out in some cases they perform perfectly, and in some cases, they perform abysmally.

Matched Senders vs Mismatched Senders

You’ve got two types of people.

Matched Senders: these people look honest and they are honest and

Mismatched Senders: they might look honest but in reality, they’re the complete opposite. What they’re showing isn’t what’s necessarily happening under the hood.

So the cases where it was matched with honest people looked honest, they got 100% correct, but the times when it was unmatched, so the honest people look dishonest or vice versa, they only got 20% right. And in fact, they’re only detected 14% of the liars who looked like they were telling the truth.

We don’t need help with matched people. If there’s a liar who looks like a liar, most of us can probably work that out. We need help from law enforcement when somebody is lying, but they look like they’re telling the truth. But that’s where they perform just as bad as a normal person.

We default to truth, because for our society to operate, we need to feel we can trust everyone around us. If you’re a parent, you need to be able to trust that you can just drop your kid off to a football training or whatever it might be, and trust the person who’s in charge.

We need to default to the truth, really, in order for society to operate. He goes into a deep dive about the recent Jerry Sandusky case, who was a football coach that had nude showers with 12-year-old boys. And there was another guy called Larry Nassar, who was the USA gymnastics doctor. And, obviously, gymnastics takes a bit of a toll on people’s bodies, but this doctor would giving young girls pelvic floor massages. He inserted his fingers into their vagina without gloves, without consent, and gave an enthusiastic massage to release and relax their pelvic floor.

He had been doing this for decades, but eventually, it was exposed that he was probably not performing the correct medical procedures. So again, that’s a trust issue with the TDT.

Malcolm Gladwell’s takeaway here is that such incidents happen. We all have this “Truth-default Theory” and rather than jumping at the victim and saying you should have known, you should’ve listened to your kids more.

So Gladwell says that rather than judging these people, we really need to sympathize with them to realize that any of us in this position probably would have done the exact same thing.


Gladwell also talks about how we struggle with transparency and people’s actions. He talks about this idea of transparency in people’s behavior and their demeanor, meaning that the way they present themselves on the outside, we think that provides an authentic window into the way they feel on the inside and so on.

And on a TV show with actors there, it’s almost a hundred percent correlation between what their face says that they’re feeling and what they’re actually feeling. But in the real world, it’s actually very hard to follow because our face doesn’t always follow these traditionally expected reactions as to what we’re feeling on the inside.

We’ve all learned the ability to put on certain masks and put on a bit of a poker face and not let the emotions that you’re feeling on the inside actually shine through to the other person. To make it even more difficult when you’re looking at changes, it differs by culture as well.

A Spanish man did a study of different cultures around the world and how they interpreted different facial expressions. To the study volts of photos of happy people smiling, sad people pouting, angry people scowling, fearful people gasping, disgusted people with the nose crunching and people just having a neutral face.

They tested these photos, with Spanish school children. So they showed the Spanish school children, somebody smiling, and 100% of the school children said that this person was happy. They showed someone pouting, and 98% of the school children said that this person was sad and so on. Above 90% identified the emotions correctly.

But when the same photos were shown to the inhabitants of Trobriand islands, which is a hundred miles off the coast of Papa New Guinea, the results were strikingly different. When they showed someone the picture of someone smiling, 58% of the participants said that they were happy while 23% of them said they were neutral.

So the facial expressions that these people in off the coast of Papua New Guinea use are completely different from the facial expressions that we use in the West.

Another area that we probably think that we’re good at is understanding the transparency of people’s emotions, but in reality, it’s much more complex and nuanced than we might think.


If we’re just looking at the person as an individual, we’re probably missing a lot of the story. Instead, we should be looking at them more broadly.

He looks at the phenomena of coupling through studies on suicide rates. In the years after WWII, many British homes began to use what was called town gas to power their stoves and their water heaters. This was manufactured by coal, and it was a mixture of a variety of different compounds like hydrogen and methane and carbon dioxide. It’s poisonous enough to kill you.

They found a lot of suicide victims with their heads covered in coats or blankets and with the tube from the gas tap underneath.

The most well-known case was a poet named Sylvia Plath. She committed suicide in 1962 in England and Wales. There were 5,588 people who committed suicide that year, and 2,500 of those killed themselves using this same method.

That’s 44% of suicides using this same method. It was the most lethal form of self-harm, significantly outstripping other methods like guns, or overdosing on pills.

In the 1960s the British energy system began to undergo some serious change in cleaning up how they procured their energy.

They replaced these poisonous concoctions with just simple natural gas, which isn’t enough to kill people. It was generally phased out up until about 1976. Then at this time of this energy transition, they looked at the graph of the number of suicides and the differences in the changes. It turns out that the decrease in suicides was equal to the decrease and the elimination of suicides from the lethal gas.

Obviously this one method of suicide was being phased out, and obviously with the decrease of this town gas than gas suicides significantly decreased. What you would probably think is that if there are these people who are looking to commit suicide through one method, if this one method, this gas suicide disappears, these people could probably look for some other way to do it. But what they found was that there was a big spike up when they introduced this town gas and then there was a big drop off after they removed this town gas.

According to Gladwell, suicide is coupled with the physical environment around us.

What they were doing was, purely looking at this problem like a mechanical or an engineering problem. They saw a problem, they saw a way to fix it, and once they reduced this one method, people weren’t looking out there for other methods of achieving the same result.

Another similar example to this Is the Golden Gate bridge. Since opening in 1937 more than 500 people have committed suicide by jumping off the bridge, and that’s significantly more than any other single place in the world in this time period.

A psychologist called Richard Sidon found out that among 515 people who had attempted to jump from the bridge between 1937 and 1971 had been unexpectedly restrained or stopped at the last moment. He followed up with these people who had wanted to jump but had been stopped by someone. And what he found was that only 25 of these people, less than 5%, had actually persisted in killing themselves by some other method.

So overwhelmingly, the people that wanted to jump off the bridge at a given moment wanted to jump off the golden gate bridge only at that given moment. 95% of the people who wanted to commit suicide by jumping off the bridge but were stopped, never pursued it later.

It’s interesting if you just look at the surface level of what people are trying to do. They’re really influenced by these coupling phenomena, the context of what’s actually happening in the environment. 

“Coupling is the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.” 

– Malcolm Gladwell

The Case of Sandra Bland

As mentioned several times before, we don’t understand strangers and, unfortunately, there are many cases in which people fall victim to another’s inability to understand them. One such example is that of Sandra Bland. Sandra Bland was pulled over by Brian Encina after failing to signal a lane change. When prompted, Bland explained that she saw Encina quickly approaching her and simply changed lanes to get out of his way.

Making her irritation to Encina quite clear, Encina asked “are you done?” which prompted further provocation from Bland. In an attempt to calm herself, Bland lit a cigarette. Encina asked Bland to put it out, but Bland refused, as she had every right to. Encina then proceeded to pull her out of her car, and when she resisted, they shouted at one another. Encina called for backup and Bland was arrested on a felony charge.

Three days later, Bland died in police custody to an apparent suicide. So, what lessons can be taken away here? That officers need to be more patient? No, it goes much deeper than that.

If you look at Brian Encina’s record, you’ll see the number of times he pulled people over for traffic violations. Following the belief that traffic violations create an opportunity for more serious crimes, Encina often pulled people over for minor infractions. Does this make the streets safer? The author argues no. In fact, Sandra Bland was in a low crime area on the highway, so this tactic most likely won’t work.

Bland was in a peaceful neighborhood near a college campus in the middle of the afternoon, so why take the time to pull her over? Simply put, Encina believed he could assume the truth about Bland’s character. Life isn’t an episode of Friends, so while Bland may have appeared agitated, she was more likely stressed than hiding something criminal. Encina couldn’t read Bland, what he thought was transparency, was a misunderstanding.

Encina made an assumption about a stranger, something that we do every day. Therefore, it’s important to remember that we cannot understand strangers, and we should stop assuming that we can. In the case of Encina and Bland, Encina didn’t understand Bland and blamed Bland for his actions when in reality, he should also blame himself for making assumptions in thinking that he knew her character.

Final Summary

Trust your gut. We hear this term all the time when a person expresses his or her feelings and suspicions about another. When a woman feels unsafe at the shopping mall because she believes a man is following her, we tell her to trust her gut. When families are playing at the park with their children and see a suspicious person lurking around the playground, we tell them to trust their gut. Even when someone in a relationship feels that their partner is being unfaithful, we tell them to trust their gut. We feel initial instincts as humans, and we are constantly told to trust them. And while all of this still holds true, Malcolm Gladwell has successfully proven that we as humans cannot understand strangers.

In fact, we are incredibly bad at understanding strangers. We have an intuition that, while helpful at times, also reflect prejudices and preconceptions about strangers that are most likely false. So while we think we may know a person based on their reputation and manner, we don’t actually have the capability to truly understand the strangers walking among us, or even the people that live around us.

What did you learn from the book summary of Talking to Strangers? What was your favorite takeaway? Is there an important insight that we missed? Comment below or tweet to us @storyshots.

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New to StoryShots? Get the free audiobook and video summaries of Talking to Strangers and hundreds of other bestsellers in our free top-ranking app. It’s been featured #1 by Apple, The UN, and The Guardian.

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