Point Taken Book Club “Talking with Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell: Post 1

One of my new neighbors here in Jersey is a woman that primarily speaks Portuguese. Her dog and my dog have a love-hate relationship…mostly they love to bark at each other in tones that convey they really don’t like each other. (Any animal psychologists out there who can help decipher what they may be saying, please comment!) When I get a moment to connect with this neighbor, we use Google translate on our phones to help decipher what each of us is trying to say. I love the technology and desperately wish I knew how to speak Portuguese so I could ditch the phone and just talk with her. In the introduction of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers,” we are introduced to a few human experiences, one of which could have really benefitted from Google translate…

Talk about coming out of the chute with some compelling and complicated human interaction stories. I remember hearing about the tragedy of Sandra Bland’s death, but I didn’t realize she ultimately died by suicide. Reading her interaction with the police officer made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I could feel the tension coming through the page. I’m glad that Gladwell has promised to spend more time on her story in Chapter 12 and I look forward to learning more and having a broader discussion with others.

As I was reading this initial introduction, I kept thinking about a concept that was new to me this week – the “ladder of abstraction.” [Not to be confused by the “ladder of inference” that I mentioned in a previous post about communication you might experience during Memorial Day driving.] The Ladder of Abstraction” was first introduced in 1939 by S.I Hayakawa in his book “Language in Thought and Action.” Hayakawa was a linguist who was most interested in semantics..which is the study of the meaning of words/phrases/text..

A man excitedly holds an orange 8-foot ladder.

This is my husband Justin. He is excited about the “Ladder of Abstraction”.

.essentially the underlying meaning of words. His theory about the “ladder of abstraction” is one that explains meaning from something concrete (his example is a cow) to something abstract (in his example ultimately that the cow is a valuable asset)…you can read a nice synopsis of the theory from Mindtools.com.

The second example in our book “Talking to Strangers” truly exemplified the idea of strangers to a maximum degree – the Aztecs meeting Cortes and his group. What struck me most in reading this was that I don’t remember all the details this book describes from the history classes of my youth. What struck me most was that Montezuma just welcomes them right on in – Hey, stranger? Come on in here!

As I look further into the concept of “Ladder of Abstraction,” it focuses on HOW we communicate to others – offering both abstract (top of the ladder) and concrete (bottom of the ladder) ideas to share bigger ideas, while giving examples that are relevant to the audience. In the context of humans “talking to strangers,” I think the Ladder of Abstraction can be helpful in explaining how people end up at the tops of different ladders. We all start the ladder similarly – there is another human – and then build up from there….with the top rungs of the ladder starting to be derived from our own lived experiences and perspectives of the world. To me, I can easily see how ladders would start to look very different for each person.

While researching Hayakawa it turns out he’s a linguist…could you imagine the level of disparity that was occurring between Cortes’ group and the Aztecs? The only thing that Gladwell perhaps unwittingly did to me was add to my abstraction that strangers are not to be trusted….how did you feel about the way this book started in terms of the idea of talking with strangers?