Talking to Strangers, the latest from bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell, is a book that goes a long way in explaining today’s political situation. It explains why people believe obvious falsehoods, trust people who lack credibility, and stubbornly refuse to question others’ poor judgment.
Although Gladwell believes he is delving into the psychology of encounters between strangers, he actually ends up exploring the internal mechanisms that guide conformity. Although it was almost certainly unintentional, he gives away the game that has allowed so many narratives to prevail among the masses, and in doing so empowers his readers with some helpful insights.
Read in this light, Talking to Strangers is one of Gladwell’s best books—second only to his now classic Outliers. Along with its relevance, his argument happens to be tighter and better supported than usual. He keeps his penchant for tangents to a minimum and makes a greater effort to explain where he’s going with his examples (unlike in David and Goliath); he does not rest his case on disputed science (as he does in Blink); and his argument doesn’t become immediately obsolete upon publication (which happened with Tipping Point).
With his newest book, Gladwell keeps the reader’s attention with interesting examples and studies, takes special care to meticulously support his claims, and ends up with some profound observations about human nature.
This doesn’t mean that Talking to Strangers is flawless. Gladwell occasionally adopts leftist narratives unquestioningly, and this will certainly frustrate informed conservative readers, especially in the introductory chapter.
Gladwell still has a habit of biting off more than he can chew, trying to employ technocratic thinking for solving moral and philosophical problems. Too often this leads to him oversimplifying issues and relying on sloppy logic that he’ll have to qualify or reverse altogether. Fortunately, the merits of the book far outweigh these flaws and make for good reading.
Truth, Transparency, and Coupling
As with his other books, Gladwell attempts to answer a seemingly simple question: Why are we so prone to misjudge one another? He frames this with the story of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was pulled over by a Texan police officer on a flimsy pretext, placed in custody, and later committed suicide while in jail.
In Gladwell’s estimation, this situation arose from society’s failure to learn how to talk to strangers: “If we were more thoughtful as a society—if we were filling to engage in some soul-searching about how we approach and make sense of strangers—[Sandra] would not have ended up dead in a Texas jail cell.” For the rest of the book, he considers what he sees as the three major underlying issues that prevent connection and precipitate misunderstandings: defaulting to truth, transparency, and coupling.
In the first section concerning the habit of defaulting to truth, Gladwell shows how most people will give others the benefit of the doubt and set a high bar for suspecting anyone: “Our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.” This means that most people have a habit of ignoring potential red flags indicating deception.
As is his wont, Gladwell illustrates and proves his point with the most interesting examples he can find, including Adolf Hitler, Bernie Madoff, Coach Jerry Sandusky, Cuban double-agents, and criminals awaiting judgment. Despite the obvious signs that these people were lying, often for years, everyone around believed them, even those who had every reason to doubt them. Gladwell explains how everyone automatically assumed honesty, preferring the given story over the possibility that the other person was a mass murderer, a colossal swindler, a pedophile, a spy, or an inveterate criminal.
In most cases, those who default to trust are right. In exceptional cases, what is needed is a “holy fool,” one who goes against the grain to suspect a popular figure and call him out when no one else will.
While one might think that Gladwell would suggest that his readers learn from the holy fool, he mostly brings this up in order to discourage such continual suspicion: “To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society. … But the alternative—to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception—is worse.” Perhaps there is a middle ground between these two extremes, but Gladwell mostly stays silent on this, preferring to excuse those who are deceived rather than offer strategies on how to guard against deceivers.
In the next section, Gladwell moves into the issue of transparency, the idea that people can “read” others from how they look. He calls this idea the “Friends fallacy” since it assumes people are as transparent in their emotions as the characters in the sitcom “Friends.” This is a mistake. Based on a variety of studies on the topic, it turns out that most people, even experienced interrogators, are quite bad at reading others from their expressions. First, facial expressions and tones are not universal; and second, many people’s appearance will not match what they intend to express.
To make this point, he discusses the cases of Amanda Knox and excessive drinking on college campuses. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Italian police charged Knox with murder because of her strange behavior and expressions. Admittedly, there is obviously more to the Knox story, which Gladwell explores, but his points about transparency hit home and bolster his overall argument.
By contrast, his points on college drinking and the idea of alcohol-induced myopia seem to stray from this idea. Gladwell seems to indicate that alcohol eliminates the possibility of applying transparency to judging others—which seems obvious—but then points out the mistake of depending on transparency in any capacity, even when sober.
He concludes: “That is a hard task under the best circumstances, because the assumption of transparency we rely on in those encounters is so flawed.” As with defaulting to truth, there must be some middle ground between relying too much on transparency and ignoring it altogether, but Gladwell again refuses to say.
Finally, Gladwell discusses the idea of coupling, when behavior is directly correlated to something external. To show this, he discusses at length the rise and fall of gas ovens in England during mid-twentieth century and how this directly affected suicides, particularly that of the poetess Sylvia Plath. Additionally, he mentions how guardrails on the Golden Gate Bridge also reduced suicides, and policing specific streets with high criminal activity reduced crime in Kansas City.
What does this have to do with the rest of Gladwell’s book? According to him, “We do not understand the importance of the context in which the stranger is operating.” This a rather broad connection is all Gladwell offers while he seems to shoehorn some old unused research into the book’s argument about talking to strangers. As always, it is all interesting and illuminating in its own way, but this digression weakens the argument. Luckily, this is the only part where this happens.
After explaining the three factors affecting people’s encounters with strangers, Gladwell’s conclusion unfortunately falls flat. He returns to the story of Sandra Bland to tie his whole argument together. It’s a sad story, but it’s difficult to say whether Gladwell’s argument up to this point would have made any difference.
Should he have defaulted to truth? Yes, but Gladwell spent the first third of the book demonstrating how this reflex enables dishonest people to commit massive crimes. Did he overreact to Sandra’s tone and body language? Yes, but this was only clear after the fact. Could the situation have been different if he knew Sandra’s context? Yes, but again, there was no way he could have known this.
Morally speaking, Bland’s story is complicated and simply doesn’t fit too well in Gladwell’s reasoning. He is forced to twist his logic to make it work, leaving it to readers to resolve these issues for themselves.
The weakness of the book’s conclusion originates from a technocratic mindset that tends to oversimplify complex moral and political challenges. Indeed, employing a data-based scientific method to human behavior can provide important insights that lead to solutions to clear problems, but it cannot account for complex situations with multiple variables. Resolving such situations demands a philosophical approach that defines those variables, evaluates various solutions and objections, and sets overall criteria for success or failure.
Because Gladwell is not a philosopher, his connections and generalizations tend to break down. In his mind, there is nothing that a change in policy will not solve. Whether it’s crime, suicide, relationships, education, medicine, or differing cultural values, all can be explained with a few claims from social science.
It is a tempting kind of analysis that brings satisfying closure to deep questions without all the hassle of deep thought. In other words, it makes readers feel smarter than they are (as well as a little smugger). Unfortunately, it’s superficial and elides important intellectual distinctions that one must fully comprehend and contemplate.
When the reader makes this concession and takes Gladwell’s book for what it is, Talking to Strangers overall is still enjoyable and informative. For the most part, it holds together and answers important questions. Gladwell could go much further in his final advice, but he is right when he recommends, “What is required of us is restraint and humility.”
Even if he says this in reference to judging others for being duped, it can also apply to believing others. People should restrain their impulse to believe appealing narratives, and exercise humility when encountering people with different viewpoints. Not only would this bring some much-needed sanity to public discourse, but it would, as Gladwell suggests, help with talking to strangers.