Book Review: Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

Years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and found it fascinating. It’s a study on how people achieve extraordinary success, and the main conclusion, as I remember, is that the key is not superlative intelligence or talent, but rather special circumstances that allow successful people to have exceptional amounts of practice in the fields in which they ultimately excel.

After Outliers I have read a few others of Gladwell’s books, but none of them satisfied in the same profound way. Still, Gladwell’s work is always entertaining, if not extraordinary, and so I picked up a copy of his new book. I found Talking to Strangers interesting, well written, and frustrating. It’s in the nature of an all-smoke-and-no-fire situation. I kept expecting Gladwell to come to some sort of profound conclusion that the book was leading up to, but it never did. The various sections are intrinsically fascinating and somewhat related, leading readers to believe that, like a police procedural, it is putting together puzzle pieces that all lead up to a climactic denouement. However, the denouement never comes.

The book opens by relating the case of Sandra Bland, an African American woman who was stopped for a very minor driving infraction by a police officer in a town in East Texas in 2015. As the police officer suspiciously questioned the woman he had pulled over, the situation quickly escalated until he physically dragged Bland out of her car, handcuffed her, and arrested her. Three days later, she committed suicide in her jail cell. Gladwell says that Talking to Strangers is an attempt to uncover why the Sandra Bland incident occurred and ended in such a tragic way.

To answer this question, Gladwell examines various theories of interacting with strangers. First he looks at the case of a comprehensive Cuban spy ring that infiltrated the CIA, and the case of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who visited Hitler on several occasions before World War II erupted and pronounced him an honest man. He questions why highly trained spies and diplomats were unable to uncover the truth about these deceivers.

Gladwell moves on to the tendency of people to default to truth when confronted with possible lies or misdeeds. In other words, when you question someone, your first tendency is to believe them, and when you witness a possible misdeed, your first tendency is to somehow rationalize it and give the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt. For examples here, Gladwell uses a Cuban spy known as the Queen of Cuba who infiltrated into the highest levels of the Defense Intelligence Administration, a swindler named Bernard Madoff who illegally robbed New York financial markets of billions while maintaining an innocuous profile, and a football coach at Penn State University named Jerry Sandusky who was convicted of being a sex offender after a career of supposedly helping and nurturing young men.

He then looks at transparency, that is, the ability of people to read the characters of others through face-to-face interactions. Transparency, claims Gladwell, is a deeply flawed method of obtaining the truth about strangers. To prove this, he explains why the facial expressions that the stars of the popular TV show Friends don’t translate well into real life, why Amanda Knox was convicted of a murder in Italy even though she was innocent, and how difficult it is to verify sexual assault when accused perpetrators and victims are black-out drunk.

From the discussion of transparency, Gladwell goes on to even more difficult situations. For instance, is the torture of a high-level Al Qaeda terrorist justified, considering that extreme physical mistreatment impairs judgment and memory? In the end, tortured individuals may say almost anything and even believe it, and then later forget that they have even said it. A discussion about a phenomenon known as coupling touches on how potential suicides fixate on a particular method of self-execution, and how in large cities high levels of crime seem to be fixed to certain small areas.

Gladwell eventually comes back to the arrest and suicide of Sandra Bland. He doesn’t really resolve the issue. Nor does he resolve the dilemma of the difficulty in relating to strangers. The point of the book seems to be that there are no simplistic answers to the difficulties that face us when we interact with strangers. We have to approach each situation without preconceptions and with an open mind.

In conclusion, even though Gladwell appears to be reaching for a conclusion throughout the book and yet never arrives at one, I can still recommend Talking to Strangers. The individual essays don’t quite mesh, but taken separately they are fascinating.

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