Reflections on a Book Club Reading of “Talking to Strangers”

4 min read

Way back in 2019, the Well Done Marketing accounts team decided to begin a book club. We started out strong with titles such as Difficult Conversations and The Great Client Partner, both books to help us navigate our jobs better. We then turned to Brené Brown’s, Dare to Lead, because everyone, it seemed, was turning to Mrs. Brown for inspiration. We added our PR team to the discussion of White Fragility and challenged our assumptions about racism.

We were on a roll. Our brains, communication skills, and overall awareness were expanding with each book. Then, I had the smashing idea to suggest Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, Talking to Strangers, as our next book. It will be different, I thought. It will be smart. It will make us think!

Old Friends

Gladwell and I go way back to Outliers. We fell out of touch over the years, but we were reacquainted through his podcast, Revisionist History. During his perfectly placed commercial breaks, he promoted his newest book.

Like the podcast I knew and loved, the book examines past events from a new perspective, in an attempt to explain how and why those events have been misunderstood. I was intrigued. Our director of accounts Melissa put the book to a vote, it was selected (I won!), and she mailed all of us our own hardback copy.

Just Hang in There!

During the first gathering of our book club meeting on Talking to Strangers, one thing was clear: This book was a total downer. No one could tell where it was going. No one understood its purpose. It was dreary and sad and highlighted just how broken we are as humans.

I tried to reassure myself, and the entire group, that Gladwell makes you think! He makes you step out of your comfort zone and perspective. He makes you look at supposedly concrete events from a different perspective.

“Just hang in there,” I told the group. “It’s going somewhere.” This after we read and discussed the book’s telling of Chamberlain’s multiple meetings with Hitler. How in Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment, volunteers would willingly shock another volunteer when failing a memory test.

Gladwell threw in a dash of the ever-so-popular Bernie Madoff. He also told the story of Ana Belen Montes, a double agent who lived right under the CIA’s nose for more than a decade. Where were all the good feels?

I wish I could say that things turned upwards throughout our discussion of the book, but it only grew darker. Gladwell has a deep list of anecdotes he shares throughout the book, and each one receives a special spin with his hypotheses and opinions.

In addition to those mentioned above, we also read and discussed the lives and devastating stories of:

All were pretty dismal and unfortunate characters in Malcolm’s attempt to put a new take on the history of these lives and their grand events that made such an impact on society.

Proceed with Caution (and Humility)

Gladwell’s big bow on his depressing package is the reminder that “The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.” Throughout the book, he shows us that human beings mostly err on the side of trust. We trust others to a fault, which can get us into some hairy predicaments. Grumbly naysayers are actually better off in the end.

I recently reached out to the team to gather some feedback on Talking to Strangers now that they’ve had a few months to sit with it. It seems that we’re all still trying to figure it out, but it did leave us with some insights.

Casey, our director of PR, said she gleaned that “despite our best efforts, we really don’t know where those we interact with are coming from. Their experiences, motives, and intentions drive their actions, so, when interacting with new people, it’s probably helpful to stay composed and really seek to understand.”

Account Coordinator Ariel mentioned that “When we recognize that we are all so different, it makes it easier to accept that we will never understand the way certain people act—because we aren’t them. Which in turn makes us more empathic and able to accept people the way that they are.”

Melissa appreciated all the footnotes that gave additional context to Gladwell’s historical references. Her biggest takeaway was, “Don’t make any assumptions, good or bad, in talking to others.”

I think I can safely speak for all of us in this book club when I say that being a grumbly naysayer doesn’t get you very far when it comes to relationships with coworkers, clients, or friends and family. We will continue to try to see the best in others and not make assumptions. Even when you share your dislike of the Gilmore Girls.