I’ve liked every Malcolm Gladwell book I’ve read and that includes this one. Prior to reading it, I feel like I read a lot of criticism about Gladwell and the book. That criticism came from the cesspool that is Twitter, which means that I was aware there was criticism but I don’t know EXACTLY what the root cause was which is why I looked it up to better understand the issues behind the criticism. It seems to me that most of the criticism is (1) the general Gladwell critique that he espouses anecdotes to prove his thesis and is not a legitimate scholar combined with the (2) far darker and more emotion-evoking topics within Talking to Strangers. I am in a career that LOVES the level to which Gladwell investigates and things very highly of him. I will not speak for any of my colleagues but I never took Gladwell too seriously. I’ve always enjoyed the way he presents a different way of thinking and provides some examples to back up that idea. It’s pop-nonfiction and I like that it isn’t too deep but can still be thought-provoking. That said, my awareness of the criticism definitely influenced me as I read the book.
The book is what Gladwell calls an enhanced audiobook and he tries to make it more podcast-like. He uses really audio when available or has actors read transcripts. I think it added a lot to the book and made me more interested in podcasts as I have never listened to one as my to-read list is too large to use my time on that medium.
Talking to Strangers is definitely Gladwell’s darkest book. His central thesis is, essentially, that we do a poor job interacting with strangers, to our detriment. The examples he chooses to demonstrate this idea include very Gladwell-ian stories like Cuban spies in the CIA but also some very heavy topics that encompass Sandra Bland’s death, Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar, and Brock Turner, a who’s who of horrible people (not Bland of course) and unspeakable tragedies.
Gladwell begins his argument discussing Sandra Bland, her arrest, and subsequent suicide. He plays audio from the case rather than reading the transcripts himself which is an excellent addition to the audiobook. He points out that the tragedy of her death demonstrates that perhaps people do not understand each other as much as they think they do. His argument does seem to eliminate the idea the racism played any part which is certainly a point for valid criticism as it seems that he oversimplifies the cause or, even worse, he obfuscates and explains away a possible cause. I thought it definitely sounded that way when I first heard it. I’m not sure if that is because I was aware of the criticism or if it naturally came to me. After finishing the book, I think this misses the point of what Gladwell does. In my opinion, he is simply offering up a different possibility, as he usually does. The difference here is that this book isn’t self-help-y. Rather it opens with something that is a very charged event that evokes strong emotions. I think there is an argument to be made that this is irresponsible of Gladwell to allow many of his readers, especially those who see him as a genuine scholar, to explain away the cause of Sandra Bland’s arrest and death. The position he takes definitely comes from a place of privilege, in that he is afforded the opportunity to look at other causes because he is so far removed from what happened. I still think it is an interesting way to look at the issue but the way he explained it was a little cringey and it took me a full paragraph to explain what I thought about it.
If you are interested, I’m really curious to hear the thoughts of my fellow cannonballers on this one.