After citing a number of examples of Bad Things happening when people trust strangers, Malcom Gladwell sums up with this passage: “We have, in other words, CIA officers who cannot make sense of their spies, judges who cannot make sense of their defendants, and prime ministers who cannot make sense of their adversaries. We have people struggle with their first impressions of a strange. We have people struggle when they have months to understand a stranger. We have people struggle when they meet with someone only once, and people struggle when they return to the stranger again and again. They struggle with assessing a stranger’s honesty. The struggle with a stranger’s character. They struggle with a stranger’s intent.” (p. 45)

Malcolm Gladwell documents dozens of examples of people trusting strangers…and paying a terrible price. Some are hurt physically, some mentally, some fatally. Gladwell’s supposition is that something in our DNA or mental programming predisposes us to trust complete strangers…usually to our detriment. Most of Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know” is a series of cautionary tales. The bottom line conclusion, after almost 400 pages, counsels caution and wariness in human interactions. But, you already knew that. GRADE: B-
Introduction: “Step Out of the Car!” 1
ONE: Fidel Castro’s Revenge 17
TWO: Getting in Know de Fuhrer 28
THREE: The Queen of Clubs 53
FOUR: The Holy Fool 89
FIVE: Case Study: The Boy in the Shower 107
SIX: The Friends Fallacy 145
SEVEN: A (Short) Explanation of the Amanda Knox Case 168
EIGHT: Case Study: The Fraternity Party 187
NINE: KSM: What Happens When the Stranger Is a Terrorist? 235
TEN: Sylvia Plath 265
ELEVEN: Case Study: The Kansas City Experiment 297
TWELVE: Sandra Bland 313

18 thoughts on “TALKING TO STRANGERS By Malcolm Gladwell

  1. wolf

    I’m not sure that strangers should be distrusted more than (some) people you know . But it seems that especially weak persons have this fear – also of people they don’t understand, like foreigners, other religions or LGBT people …
    Of course I’m generally careful (wary?), also in relationships, trying to see the other person in all details. The biggest disappointments I’ve had were with friends or people I knew (neighbours e g) and considered as honest and therefore “harmless”.
    Rather OT re “friends”:
    My favourite story there – from more than 50 years ago:
    I had built up a small collection of SF books in German and lent a whole box to someone whom I considered to be a friend – only to never get them back. I lost contact …
    More than ten years later a colleague called me and asked if I had sold SF books – he explained that while camping someone had him shown these books with my name in them, and it’s a not so common name …
    It turned out that the “friend” had given the books to another friend which I also knew and this guy (nickname hedgehog …) had sold them.
    Some years later I saw hedgehog again, he said he was sorry and he had caught himself, had studied pharmacy and now was a pharma salesman. To compensate for my loss he gave us a year’s package of birth control pills for my wife and her teenage daughter (from the first marriage).
    I still remember – the highlights of those lost books were the Demon Princes novels by Jack Vance (in German translation) and since they were out of print it took me a long time to get them back. Of course I had bought and read the originals in the meantime … 🙂

  2. Patti Abbott

    Your opinion seems to be the consensus on it. I guess every book can’t carry the weight of THE TIPPING POINT.

    1. george Post author

      Patti, I’m surprised at how many negative reviews Gladwell’s books receive. But, bad reviews don’t seem to affect the sales of Gladwell’s books.

  3. Deb

    Seems like a long way to go for what is reduced in elementary school to STRANGER DANGER. I believe in being cautious and applying common sense to situations—as in, “No, complete stranger who just approached me in the Walmart parking lot, you cannot “borrow” my phone to call your ride.“ I don’t need to read an entire book to get that.

    1. george Post author

      Deb, exactly! Much of TALKING TO STRANGERS’s message seems to be Common Sense. But, Gladwell provides plenty of stories where people trusted strangers…to their detriment.

  4. Jeff Meyerson

    I read Gladwell’s first couple of books and enjoyed them, but this one’s reviews had put me off and yours puts the nail in that. I am generally wary (not suspicious, necessarily, but careful) of strangers (like Deb’s example). We are constantly amazed at these stories of trusting seniors (they are usually “seniors” in the stories) who are conned out of thousands of dollars over the phone by calls from the supposed IRS or their bank (or others) telling them that they are in trouble unless they pay the money they supposedly owe … by sending it in gift cards, no less. You really think the IRS won’t send you an official letter but will call and demand Amazon gift cards? Really? Or, “Grandma, this is your [unnamed] grandchild. I’m stuck in Mexico [or London], my passport and money were stolen, I need you to wire me money immediately.” They never think of calling their children to see if said grandchild is really in London? I hate being duped (yes, it happens to all of us at times) so I’m probably more suspicious than the average.

    1. george Post author

      Jeff, one thing Gladwell’s TALKING TO STRANGERS proves is that many, many people are trusting the Wrong People. Scams, cons, and Nigerian “fortunes” lure people in loss and despair every day.

    2. wolf

      These types of scam exist everywhere where there are people with money.
      Every day in Germany you read about them – really crazy. I absolutely don’t understand this – and I’m over 76 myself, but never got a call like that.
      Though an acquaintance of ours was the victim of a “love scam” – a “Young woman” who fell in love with him and he sent her money for this (he was already 70 years old then …), wtf?
      But I’ve helped strangers and got help from strangers in small things – never had a problem there.
      A bit OT again:
      On my holidays in the USA I also met many strangers with whom I had interesting discussions, in bars eg – from NYC to Santa Cruz CA and Miami Beach to Savannah, fond memories there.
      One of my favourites, from long time ago (I may have told that story before):
      In 1989 I took my late first wife through the “South-West” – from Vegas to SFO.
      One morning in Arizona we stopped at a diner for a late breakfast, it was only half full but I realised an old guy getting ever closer to us at the bar. And then he asked us whether we were Germans, told us that his wife’s of German descent and asked if we would come for a short visit to their house – because of age they hadn’t gone to Germany for some years. We said yes and it was a happy surprise for her, she showed us around the house and all the German souvenirs on display …
      Once I was in Austin for a Steve Winwood open air concert and the day before I went into a bar on 6th st. Some guys were showing the owner pictures on a laptop and I had the courage to ask if they knew a good bookstore. They realised that I was a foreigner and when I told them I was German one of them immediately called his son and told him I’d be willing to answer questions – the son was planning a trip through Germany and Switzerland. So we talked on the phone and I gave him the info that there are cruise ships on the Rhine – so he wouldn’t have to drive all the way.
      After that one of them looked at his watch and told me:
      Drink up, you’re coming with us!
      We ended on that famous bridge where soon that million of bats came out of hiding – what a fantastic sight!
      So you should always be open minded – but of course also wary …
      I probably have told other stories of really nice meetings in the USA – and the same goes for Europe too of course.


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