This was an interesting but ultimately frustrating read. In his engaging style, Gladwell unpacks a set of human psychological traits that lead us to be very bad at assessing the motives of people we don’t know. But for a book that centres the tragic death of Sandra Bland, there is a huge hole at the centre. Every interaction with a stranger is shaped by our race, gender and position on a multitude of other social hierarchies that are barely acknowledged to Gladwell’s analysis.
After starting with Sandra Bland’s traffic stop, Gladwell takes the reader on a tour of other situations where people have read other people all wrong. Those who appeased Hitler, dismissing his desire for war. Cuban spies embedded in American intelligence agencies. Ponzi schemes. The mental gymnastics of parents and colleagues who couldn’t believe the child abuse they saw with their own eyes. Bullshit facial expressions on TV sitcoms. Slutty murder suspects. Frat boy rapists and their drunken victims. Terrorists, torture and “enhanced interogation techniques”. Dead poets. Cops driven by stats and pseudosience misapplying their apple recipes to oranges and anything vaguely fruitlike. Then we are back to Sandra Black for the wrap-up.
There’s definitely some interesting stuff in there. Some amusing anecdotes, entertaining digressions, and plausible explanations of many of our underlying assumptions and presumptions. But when a book is bookended with Sandra Bland’s story, I expect it to dig deeper than this, and to not bury all discussion of race in the footnotes and ignore other power relations altogether.