How to Talk to Strangers

Talking to Strangers
By Malcolm Gladwell
400 pp. Little, Brown and Company. $30.
My recommendation: Get the audiobook on!

If you’ve read Gladwell, you know that his books make for great chatter at a dinner party or other social event. I can attest to this, having been invited to a New Year’s Eve party last week where I was forced to make small talk with many strangers. I knew only a handful of the more than 50 people that were there, not counting the children — and there were a lot of children. So what’s one to do when seated next to a small child or chatty stranger? Why, bring up Gladwell’s findings on suicide, of course!

So we talked about Sylvia Plath, and how she’d killed herself by sticking her head in the oven.

“But it’s not like you think,” I told the child seated next to me. Or was it the older man with the goatee? It’s hard to say, because the people I got seated next to had a tendency of leaving, so that it seemed for much of the evening like I was in the middle of a game of musical chairs. “She didn’t die from some sort of 3rd degree burn from baking her head or something. You’d have to have some kind of determination to keep your head in an oven when it’s burning, don’t you think? But no, it was a gas oven, the poisonous kind of gas. Carbon monoxide! But if Plath had tried to kill herself just a few years later, after England had switched from coal gas to natural gas, she would have had to attempt suicide using a different method, and statistics show us that contrary to popular belief, a suicidal person will NOT just find another way to kill themselves. They’ve already thought long and hard about how they’ll go about killing themselves. And if the gas is no longer poisonous, or the Golden Gate Bridge has put up barriers to prevent jumpers, as they finally did just a year ago, those people won’t just find another way — they most likely won’t even try another method! All of which is to say,” finally getting around to my point, “were it not for coal ovens, Plath might still be alive today!”

Later, at the bar next to the Jewish lady hosting the party, “Do you know banning handguns would save the lives of 10,000 American men every year? And that’s just the number of suicides, not all gun violence!” Then, to include her husband, who had just stepped over, in the conversation, “In America, most men kill themselves with handguns. Most women with pills. Pills though are 55 times LESS likely to kill you! Something to keep in mind.”

I mean, how can you not be interested in the magnificent little tidbits that Gladwell drops? I, for one, can’t get enough of them!

I very much enjoyed The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big DifferenceBlink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and Outliers: The Story of Success, and “Talking to Strangers” is as good if not better than those three. 

It should be mentioned here that Gladwell has been accused of fudging facts, and I recall reading an interview in which he said the basic story he wants to tell takes priority over the science. So take him with a grain of salt then. He’s the Dan Brown of the non-fiction world. I wouldn’t take something he says at face value without researching it myself, which one might rightly argue is a pretty big deal if you’re positioning yourself as some sort of expert, as Gladwell is, but he’s a damn entertaining writer nevertheless, which is enough as long as you know what you’re getting.

But the way to read this, isn’t to read it at all. It’s to listen to it! Like those aforementioned books, Gladwell narrates this himself, and he’s got a great voice. But the biggest reason to listen to “Talking to Strangers” is because Gladwell has produced it like one of his podcasts rather than just another audiobook. Which is to say that when Gladwell quotes someone in the book, in the audiobook he actually plays his interview with that person. Clips cited from a show or media program are also played rather than merely cited.

The whole premise of “Talking to Strangers” is fascinating. Gladwell cites numerous examples showing how communication can break down when we’re talking to someone from a different culture or background, and before you know it you’ve said the wrong thing to the person you’ve just met at that dinner party.

Reading Gladwell isn’t just personally insightful, it helps to lubricate all those otherwise uncomfortable social encounters with people (and children) and makes you sound like you really know what you’re talking about when it comes to suicide, and other things.

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