Is New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell a master of the obvious or the king of the counterintuitive? It’s something of a toss-up. No doubt, though, that the author of such bestsellers as “The Tipping Point,” “Outliers,” and “Blink” is a cunning and lucid prose stylist, adept at roping together seemingly disparate ideas and reportage in service to some larger point.
I first read his latest, “Talking to Strangers,” a few weeks ago in a couple of gulps. Three ideas stuck with me.
The first was that, in analyzing strangers, we “default to truth” — that is, we’re trusting and generally assume that people are honest. The second (even more obvious) idea is that we’re often missing vital pieces of someone’s back story that would help us interpret their behavior. Then there’s the less self-evident notion that sometimes we make better assessments from afar than in person.
I enjoyed the book, then immediately forgot it. But was that fair? For this review, I plunged in again to see if Gladwell really shed light on such debacles as the Neville Chamberlain-Adolf Hitler negotiations, the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, and the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal.
Gladwell’s point of departure is the case of Sandra Bland, a young African-American woman arrested in Texas during a 2015 traffic stop gone wrong. She subsequently hanged herself in a jail cell, and the questions surrounding the incident helped fuel Black Lives Matter. Citing the movement lends Gladwell’s enterprise a certain social relevance and urgency.
In a signature instance of narrative whiplash, Gladwell then transports us back nearly five centuries, to the 1519 meeting in Mexico between the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and the Aztec ruler Montezuma II. Even with two interpreters on hand, the men’s unbridgeable cultural views (and, presumably, their clashing geopolitical interests) precipitated disaster, including the deaths of as many as 20 million Aztecs. “That is the world we live in today,” Gladwell insists, meaning a world of people foreign to one another. “ ‘Talking to Strangers’ is about why we are so bad at that act of translation.”
Next, he discusses the difficulty of detecting treachery in both spies and diplomats. He connects the United States’ massive post-World War II intelligence and counterintelligence failures with the 1938 Munich Pact, the product of British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s belief that Hitler was a man of his word. Citing a study showing that judges did worse than a computer in assessing which defendants would re-offend if released on bail, Gladwell asks: “How is it that meeting a stranger makes us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them?”
In response, Gladwell, as per his custom, borrows ideas from academe. Citing psychologist Tim Levine’s “Truth Default Theory,” he writes: “Our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest. . . . It’s a deeply profound point that explains a lot of otherwise puzzling behavior.”
Examples include the so-called Queen of Cuba, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who was actually a longtime spy for Fidel Castro; Madoff’s financial shenanigans, which provoked skepticism, but, for a long time, not enough; and the much-too-slow uncovering of Sandusky’s predations at Pennsylvania State University. Levine’s evolution-based argument – and Gladwell’s – is that defaulting to truth, though a hazard in these egregious situations, is overall a more efficient strategy than constant suspicion.
Gladwell then turns to transparency, the notion “that people’s behavior and demeanor . . . provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.” But that assumption is misleading when people have behavioral tics that make them “mismatch” expectations. This was precisely Amanda Knox’s problem, he suggests. Her guilty verdict in the 2007 murder of her roommate in Italy, eventually overturned, had much to do with her odd, confusing demeanor.
Gladwell also enters the fray over sexual consent and assault on college campuses. He points out — again, rather obviously — that the addition of alcohol to the mix only adds to the confusion, making consent harder to determine.
What happens when the titular stranger is a terrorist? In the book’s most squirm-inducing section, Gladwell reports on the genesis of “enhanced interrogation” techniques such as waterboarding. And he notes, as others have done, that the psychological stress induced by such techniques likely results in inaccurate information — that, in other words, “the harder we work at getting strangers to reveal themselves, the more elusive they become.”
Another phenomenon Gladwell discusses is “coupling,” the concept that behaviors are linked to specific circumstances. Gladwell extends this idea to suicide — the poet Sylvia Plath’s death by highly toxic “town gas” is illustrative — and to various, mostly failed attempts to improve the efficiency of policing.
After this intellectual journey, Gladwell returns to Bland. Brian Encinia, the arresting officer, was practicing a particularly aggressive form of policing — and he interpreted Bland’s anxious demeanor as an index of criminal danger. In fact, with a long track record of traffic fines and mental health problems, Bland was simply upset at being stopped.
“The death of Sandra Bland is what happens when a society does not know how to talk to strangers,” Gladwell suggests, a conclusion at once triumphant, regretful, and vaguely unsatisfying.
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.