I’ve read at least four books by Malcolm Gladwell, and I’ve found them consistently interesting and educational. So, I was pretty excited when I was finally able to check out the audio version of Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know (2019) by Malcolm Gladwell. The audio version was billed as more of a podcast experience. Whenever possible, real audio clips of real people were used, and there was even a theme song that recurred throughout the book. It was also read by Gladwell himself.
I didn’t think much about what this book was about before I began. I just assumed it would draw me in as Gladwell’s other books have. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for me to start wondering where Gladwell was going. In a discussion about misunderstandings between strangers, Gladwell describes the first meeting between the Spanish conquistador Cortés and Montezuma II in the early 1500’s. He explains that since they were both using translators and had significant cultural differences, there was a grave misunderstanding. Cortés thought that Montezuma II had surrendered to him. Gladwell says the end result is that Montezuma II was taken hostage and murdered. The war that followed resulted in the death of up to 20 million Aztecs. But this was a very dissatisfying conclusion. Gladwell blandly professes that a misunderstanding was the reason for the war without taking into account the differences in power or the reason the Spaniards were there–armed to the teeth and prepared for occupation.
Gladwell then moves to Sandra Bland, a Black woman who was pulled over by a white cop in Texas for failing to signal. She had moved over quickly to get out of the way when he had run up behind her (on purpose). She was upset and felt harassed, and the cop did not handle it well. He ended up arresting her, and she ended up killing herself three days later in a jail cell. It sounded like a very tragic story, and I was curious how Gladwell was going to explain this incident.
I think the biggest problem with Talking to Strangers is that Gladwell lacks s a unifying theme. He takes a number of controversial stories from the headlines and tries to shoehorn them into something. But many times, much like with Montezuma and Cortés, he takes these actions out of context and doesn’t look at the larger picture. This made for a very frustrating read.
On the one hand, I did learn a couple of interesting things. First, all people, and even experts, are really bad at knowing when someone is lying. In fact, a computer program does significantly better than judges at determining when suspects should be allowed out on bail. (I wish Gladwell had dug deeper into this topic. Why aren’t we using this program if it’s so much better?). Trained detectives are also very bad at detecting liars, but they unfortunately believe more in their ability.
Second, we rely heavily on expected facial cues to determine if someone is trustworthy or telling the truth. But these facial cues are not universal (there are cultural differences) and quite often the stereotypical version of facial cues simply don’t happen in most people. But when liars are good at facial expressions or others don’t make what we think are the right facial expressions, people get the wrong idea. Here, Malcolm uses the example of Amanda Knox. Once again, there’s a lot more to this story than facial expressions, but since I hadn’t really followed the story of Amanda Knox, I found this section interesting. I would definitely recommend the Amanda Knox documentary on Netflix.
Gladwell goes on to talk about coupling, which didn’t do much for me. Sylvia Plath suffered from depression and this was “coupled” with a readily available suicide option of the dirty fuel used for ovens. Her suicide may not have happened five years later when we had cleaner burning fuel and this suicide option was more difficult. Gladwell’s point when it came back to Sandra Bland was that the cop’s procedures were those that were supposed to be used in the most dangerous, crime-ridden areas–not a small town with little to no crime. Apparently these tactics were first used in Kansas City to great effect. Again, this was deeply unsatisfying. Gladwell ignores the power dynamic, the history of racial tension with cops, the personalities of those involved, and any other possible factors.
Gladwell also brings up Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, and Brock Turner. These are all topics that gripped the headlines and guarantee readers. However, these topics don’t really fit the “talking to strangers theme,” and Gladwell’s use of them ranged from unconvincing to pretty offensive. He says that alcohol “coupled” with the highly sexualized atmosphere of the college party caused Turner to sexually assault Miller. I read a book about alcohol by a woman who had been an alcoholic, so I’m with Gladwell up to a point about the many negative effects of alcohol that our society ignores. However, once again, Gladwell does not address the context and history of sexual violence against women. Many rapists are repeat offenders who use alcohol or other drugs as a weapon because no one’s going to believe a woman’s story when she’s drunk.–or the woman won’t know the story herself if she has passed out. They take advantage of the fact that it’s incredibly difficult for women to come forward about rape when their claims are ignored, belittled, and no action is taken.
I was surprised by how frustrated I became while listening to this book. I simply did not find many of Gladwell’s arguments convincing. It’s made me wonder whether I would find problems with his earlier books if I went back and reread them. So, although I learned a couple of interesting things, this book was disappointing.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.