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A Review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking With Strangers

I’m one of the lucky ones. I know it. Every day, I walk to my full time job. It takes about twenty minutes, and if I’m busy, I can check my email before I walk in the door. I can hear birds chirp, and pet stray cats. I can say, “Hi” to neighbors and just get a sense of what is happening in my hood. That walk in the morning and the subsequent one in the evening is something that helps me with the mind numbing nature that my job can be. And I’m lucky; I know it. When things are slow, however, I also can listen to books on tape, which has made my subscription to Audible well worth it. Especially lately.

Just last week, I downloaded the audio version of Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking With Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know. I like Malcolm Gladwell, and while I don’t necessarily read every book, when I do, I find him to be a really engaging writer. From one writer to another, I’ll admit he’s a really good writer. And his latest book is no different. Only this time, I listened to it instead of reading it. While most audiobooks hew pretty close to the text, Gladwell’s audiobook is set up a bit differently. He admits it’s more like a podcast than an audiobook. And from a medium point of view, that makes this audiobook miles above most of the ones I’ve listened to lately. So, if you’re reluctant to listen to an audiobook because you might find it a bit monotonous, rest easy.

He starts off with examining and sampling heavily from the Brian Encinia’ s interaction with Sandra Bland in 2015. From there he talks about the CIA and Cuban Spies, Bernie Madoff, Amanda Knox, Sylvia Plath, and policing. He brings in experts and lays out his argument well. It really was super thought provoking and I’m inclined to believe his thesis. We are terrible at understanding others, and we think we aren’t. Strangely, it made me understand why my mother seemed to be such a good reader of people.

My mother is the child of an alcoholic. She regaled us of stories where every morning her father (my grandfather) would get up and head to the bathroom where he’d start the day by drinking a screwdriver, throwing up, drinking another screwdriver, throwing up, etc. until he could keep it down. Then he’d head off to work (he was a doctor).

I have almost no memory of him because he died (cirrhosis) when I was very young (1969–70?). My guess is that my mother had to develop a sense of what mood he was in based on how drunk he was. Of course, vodka is known as odorless so it was clearly his alcohol of choice. She’d talk about if she really wanted his input on things, she’d talk to him first thing in the morning. But I bet it also developed in her a skill at reading people. When you can’t rely on other senses (smell) and the person is pretty good at “faking it” you may have to rely on other things to figure out whether you are going to be snapped it, belittled, yelled at by your father who really is a mean drunk.

While this almost nothing to do with Gladwell’s book, I can’t help but notice that I wondered what are the conditions that would make us better at “talking with strangers.” With alcohol consumption on the rise , I can’t help but wonder if the children of certain types of alcoholics may have one unintended advantage over the rest of us. All this came to mind as I listened to Gladwell. He asks a lot really interesting questions and is not satisfied with easy answers. Framing the book like he does, he spells out what he thinks happened on the stretch of highway in Prairie View, Texas, and, I think he may have it about right.

Poet, writer, producer, monologist, rhetor, Dudeist Priest.

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