Book Club Review: Talking to Strangers

\"\"

As teased earlier, I am starting a book club, and today marks its official birth. I’m as excited as you are. 

Why a book club (besides the obvious social status it brings)? Well, feeding this beast of a blog with content is a never-ending struggle. Since I read a lot, I’ve always got recent books that I can review, and a structured book review is a little easier than penning original content. But just writing my own reviews could get a bit tedious (for both of us), so bringing in additional folks is an easy improvement. A variety of views can be presented, and there’s a nice social aspect as we can rotate hosting reviews across the group. Plus all of the members will surely enjoy a soldier-like camaraderie and become buddies for life. 

Today we’re going to review Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, Talking to Strangers.

From the Amazon summary:

“Something is very wrong, Gladwell argues, with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don\’t know. And because we don\’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.“

Talking to Strangers is “a powerful examination of our interactions with people we don’t know.” Gladwell starts and ends the book with the infamous 2015 traffic stop of Sandra Bland, a black motorist who was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. The interaction with the police officer quickly escalated, led to Bland’s arrest, and ended with Bland committing suicide in her jail cell 3 days later. Gladwell uses it as the perfect example of the problems we have when interacting with strangers, and he uses the book to examine all of the common mistakes and fallacies that complicate these interactions.

Like all good book clubs, we have a lot of interested people who didn’t read the current book. So today, it’ll just be Nelson Smith (who picked this book) and me reviewing.

Showing that at least some of us have mad skills when talking to strangers, Nelson and I have become good internet buddies over the years despite never having met in person (will we ever move beyond a letter-fueled romance? Time will tell!). He used to write at Financial Uproar (RIP) and now writes at Canadian Dividend Investing. Nelson is the foundation of this club, so I will hold him fully accountable if it ever fails.

I’ve developed a Q&A format for our reviews, so away we go!

_______________________________

HAS MY OPINION OF NELSON GONE UP OR DOWN AFTER THIS PICK?

Paul: 

My opinion of Nelson has gone up with this pick. This was not a perfect book, but it may well have been the perfect book to start a book club. It’s a quick read, which makes for an easy start. It’s an extremely interesting subject, and Gladwell, as always, delivers some great writing. However, the book has some flaws, and that makes for a great discussion. I didn’t read Nelson’s review until I was done with my own, and I was pleased to see that we have some differing views. 

Nelson:

(Editor: if you’re the recommender, this question is supposed to become: “I am [proud or embarrassed] to have recommended this book, and here’s why.” Nelson either didn’t catch that or just wanted to talk about his self-love.)

Absolutely not, but it has nothing to do with the book itself. It’s simply because there’s no way to possibly love yourself more than I do. I get visibly excited when I catch a reflection of myself on some sort of shiny object. The sight of myself excited causes more excitement, and the process repeats itself until I literally collapse in exhaustion. I’ve wasted entire weeks in this perpetual loop, and I regret nothing. 

So, yeah, I think Nelson is a pretty righteous guy. His rugged good looks have slayed many a lady. And my God, you guys. You should see the size of his brain. He has it all, folks – smarts and looks. Modesty, too. 

Another paragraph about Nelson? Don’t mind if I do. I once saved a kitten from a speeding truck, and then pushed a COVID-19 denier in front of it! This might seem like a harsh punishment for someone who’s simply questioning the government, but I disagree. I’m a hero, really. 

(Editor: the above was edited for length. We know – we should have cut more.)

_______________________________

THE POINT WHERE I KNEW THIS WAS GOING TO BE A GOOD OR BAD BOOK WAS…

Paul: 

Really, really early. It was when Gladwell pivoted from discussing Sandra Bland to the famous interaction between the strangers Cortez and Montezuma (spoiler alert: it went poorly). At that moment, I remember being excited and hopeful for a very interesting book, and it did not disappoint.

Nelson:

Some people don’t particularly like Malcolm Gladwell, saying he’s one of the more prominent members of a group of writers who take a series of anecdotes and use them to piece together a broad point about something. These people conveniently ignore any evidence that contradicts their point because, as the critics say, that doesn’t make a good book. 

Gladwell might be guilty of that…but screw it. Hot damn that man can put sentences together. Compared to Gladwell, this book review is basically the equivalent of a bunch of monkeys randomly mashing a keyboard until something resembling a coherent paragraph comes out. He had me hooked right from the introduction, and I had the book finished in about three days. He’s that good. 

_______________________________

WHAT DID I LIKE?

Paul: 

Gladwell is a great writer, and each chapter could stand alone. This book covered a lot of ground and went into many unexpected directions, but each topic was very interesting and made for entertaining and informative reading.

Nelson:

Talking to Strangers is about our failures to communicate effectively with people we don’t know. Basically, we have a certain set of strategies to communicate with strangers. But sometimes these rules don’t work, and the results can be anything from mildly annoying to life-altering.

Some of the examples he uses – like the story of Brock Turner and the broader theme of the rape problem on college campuses – were utterly fascinating. 

This is one of those books that will impact your day-to-day life if you fully understand it and start to implement its conclusions. More on that later. 

_______________________________

WHAT DID I DISLIKE?

Paul:

It’s a good thing that each chapter could stand alone, because they really needed to. I could see a clear link between the Sandra Bland story and Cortez & Montezuma, and I had a lot of momentum at that point. But after the next few chapters, I suddenly stopped and said, “Wait! What the H are we talking about?” 

Hitler and Chamberlain. Uncovering spies. Bernie Madoff. Sylvia Plath’s means of suicide. Jerry Sandusky. The TV show Friends. The lack of mobility of sex workers. All of these relate somehow to talking to strangers. 

I think this book should have stayed focused on the problems in interactions between two (relatively) well-intentioned strangers (like the Amanda Knox story, which was done well) and stayed in that lane. I think Gladwell tried to do WAY too much with this book. Reading it was like chatting with a brilliant historian who is getting steadily drunk. Everything he said was super interesting, but the supposed links between topics got wider and wider. 

Plus, there wasn’t a whole lot of actual advice. I learned a lot of things not to do (#1 on the list: don’t trust Hitler), but there was very little on how we should talk to strangers.

Despite a long list of flaws, this was a very interesting read. I just feel that it fell way short of its potential and could have been a masterpiece.

Nelson:

Not much. The only thing I even disliked a little was Gladwell’s interpretation of the Sandra Bland story. I won’t get into details – y’know, spoilers and all that – but I think he was guilty of using only some of the available information on that person and her situation to make his point.

Still, that’s a minor quibble. Overall, the book is quite good. 

_______________________________

THIS BOOK WAS BETTER THAN [FILL IN BLANK] BUT WORSE THAN [FILL IN BLANK].

Paul: 

This book was better than What the Dog Saw but worse than Outliers. It was ever-so-slightly better organized that the former (which, in its defense, is a collection of random articles…), but Outliers is Gladwell at his best and is measurably better than Talking to Strangers.

Nelson:

Because I’m the coolest person I know (Editor: Nelson doesn’t know many people), I keep a running tally of every book I’ve read along with a simple rating of it. Since the beginning of 2017, I’ve read approximately 100 books. 15 have gotten my highest rating of 5 stars. Gladwell’s book was the latest on the 5-star list. That alone puts it above 85% of all the books I finish, a list that doesn’t even include the books I’ve started and abandoned. 

Gladwell is a great writer, but he’s no Bill Bryson. 4 of the 15 5-star books I’ve read in the last few years have been Bryson books. Hey, Paul, can we do Bill Bryson next? NO, I DON’T MEAN IT LIKE THAT. GEEZ, GUYS. 

(Editor: this type of book nerdery is exactly why Nelson was invited. You\’re welcome.)

_______________________________

WAS READING THIS BOOK A GOOD USE OF MY TIME?

Paul:

Oh yes. This was a really fast read, so it had a low hurdle to clear and made it handily. Though it had some flaws, and fell way short of its potential, it certainly made me think. Gladwell left me to do a lot of the work he should have done, but I was OK with that. 

Nelson:

It sure was. Although we’re all so bored isolated at home at this point I think reading the ingredients on a box of crackers would qualify as a good use of my time. I’m soooooooooooo bored. The only reason I’m doing this book review is to have something to entertain me for 20 minutes. 

Did you guys know I willingly did yard work this week? It still sucks, even if you’re bored out of your tree. 

_______________________________

WHAT VALUE WILL THIS BOOK HAVE FOR ME, LONG-TERM?

Paul:

I won’t be re-reading this book. As I prepared for this review, I noticed that I’d already forgotten a lot of it. Its long-term value for me may therefore be limited. However, the detailed discussion of the Sandra Bland incident is something that’s going to stick with me for a long time. The speed at which her interaction with the police officer went completely off the rails shocked me, and the way their vast differences fueled the altercation is going to be a good reminder to use a truckload of empathy in all of my dealings with others. 

Nelson:

I very rarely re-read books. There are like 80 million books out there I haven’t read, why would I waste time on something I’ve already internalized the gist of?

But I think I’ll crack this one open again. Figuring out the motivation of strangers can be infinitely helpful. The things Gladwell talks about will come in handy in every situation where you meet someone you don’t know. Most importantly, I better understand how my actions could be misinterpreted when I’m talking to someone I don’t know. 


THE VERDICT

First, let’s declare this book review concept a tentative success. Our reviews noted many similar aspects but came to different conclusions, and that may be much more informative to someone considering this book than a single person’s view. 

For the book review itself, Nelson gives Talking to Strangers a huge thumbs up, and Paul’s thumb is pointing at least 45° up. It’s therefore a good read, so get after it.

Up next for our book club, recommended by me and hosted by Nelson, is American Kingpin, “the unbelievable true story of the man who built a billion-dollar online drug empire from his bedroom – and almost got away with it.” Yeah!


If you’ve read Talking to Strangers, please let us know your thoughts below – feel free to answer the full battery of questions or hand-craft your own review.

If you are interested in joining the book club, we’d love to have you – comment below or DM me on Twitter. Like all good book clubs, you can read or skip the current selection. But if you’re just angling to host a review without ever adding value to the club, shame on you. Show us your wit with a few reviews, and then it’ll be your turn to host. (Warning: I’m appointing Nelson as Chief Wit Inspector, and he’s a hard grader.)


8 thoughts on “Book Club Review: Talking to Strangers”

  1. Hi Paul,

    Congrats on the launch of the Book Club. I looked for American Kingpin at the local bookstore, but they do not have and would take weeks to get it. By the end, I ordered using Amazon and I’ll probably get it by the end of the month.

    The review was funny, especially the narcissism side of Nelson on the first topic.

    I look forwards to join you guys for the next review.

    All the best.

    1. Many thanks Odysseus.

      Sorry for the trouble on American Kingpin – if you can start to embrace e-books, we may be able to lever my public library so you’re not out of pocket. I thought I was the last person on earth to embrace e-books, but it appears you’re lagging me!

      We’re looking forward to having you for the next review, and hopefully you can host the one after that.

      Thanks again

      1. Hi Paul!

        I hope you all are doing good.

        How is the lockdown going at your place? Plans to start getting out of?
        Here we are planning to go back to normal life (or something close to that) in May.

        Concerning American Kingpin, it was not even close of being a trouble. I’m still working on getting the habit of consistently reading again, so having a physical book close to my bed when I’m going to sleep makes it easy (already using some tricks from Atomic Habit).

        With time I may change to ebooks. Penelope is already suggesting it due to budget cuts (even so the book came from a personal budget – a topic for blog’s post in the future) and a lack of space into the apartment.

        I’m already working on the draft review of Atomic Habits and we can have it after American Kingpin if it is ok for all the book club members.

        Have a nice week.

        Cheers!

        1. Hi Odysseus

          The lockdown is going well for us. I’m a bit worried because our state (Texas) is going to be one of the first to open up. It feels like decisions are being made more out of emotion and frustration than science, and that may not end well.

          Let me know if you’re interested in exploring ebooks – there are a lot of resources to help find free options. It can be cumbersome, but my own experience was microeconomics at work – once the price went to $0, consumption went up dramatically 🙂

          Let’s go ahead and put Atomic Habits on your site in the queue after American Kingpin. I’ll let folks know.

          Thanks and have a great week yourself

  2. I just finished Talking to Strangers, and had different take on the Brock Turner and torturing story. I was hoping one of the reviewers would be a woman/feminist/human rights oriented person. So, I’ll add what I hoped to see:
    1. Although he couples drinking and sexualized dancing as a ‘warning’, saying it’s not ‘blaming the victim’, he doesn’t consider that even if sexually aroused it is possible a number of people would not have sex under those circumstances. He skirts the option of ‘treating women with respect’ quickly, and adds ‘not over drink and grind’, focusing on that. I think he needed to look at sexual objectification more.
    2. He uses voices with the torturing story of the psychologists, with carefree unemotional tones. This objectifies the receiver of the torture – ‘a foreign enemy agent’ – removes their humanity. With Brock Turner, the woman’s voice sounds impacted, which he talks about. His rendition of torture makes it feel as if water boarding someone would be an acceptable afternoon activity. He personifies the “Ugly American” seeing people of different ethnicity and country of not deserving sensitivity/recognition of their pain. Embarrassing that he’s a Canadian.

  3. I loved this!!!! I’m hosting my first book club and love how you guys added humor and are just keeping it so real/ true to your natural personalities. Dont know why- I was getting all ‘formal and stiff’ about mine.
    Thanks so much for the inspiring questions and ideas.

    1. Our pleasure! I’ve been in many a book club, and they can be rather stiff and consensus-oriented affairs. I like the written format here because it requires us to commit a bit before we know if we feel similarly – perhaps incorporate that somehow in yours (maybe have folks fill out something in advance, if it’s an in-person club). Thanks for the note and good luck

  4. Pingback: Book Club Review – Atomic Habits, by James Clear – Odyssey to Fire

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.