Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Talking to Strangers’ is a swing and a miss

The bestselling author says that we need more trust. But the monstrous crimes in his case studies don't help his argument.

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
“Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown, 386 pp.

The death of Sandra Bland, an African American woman who was arrested during a 2015 traffic stop in Texas and who died by suicide in her jail cell three days later, led to protests, investigations, and copious analysis. But Malcolm Gladwell thinks our conversations about it have missed the point. 

His latest book, “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know,” was inspired by his dismay over Bland’s death and is framed by a close reading of the heated encounter between Bland and Brian Encinia, the police officer who pulled her over for failure to signal a lane change. While most commentators view the Bland case through the prism of racism or bad policing, Gladwell sees it as symptomatic of our inability, as a society, to make sense of strangers.

As in Gladwell’s previous books, most recently 2013’s “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” the best-selling author and New Yorker writer puts a distinctive and provocative spin on his topic, bringing it to life by populating the book with riveting, headline-grabbing scandals (Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, and Bernie Madoff are among his extended case studies) and drawing on psychological research and social science to support his claims. The book is consistently intriguing and compelling, if at times a bit scattershot.

In all of his chosen examples, Gladwell writes, after being confronted by strangers, “the parties involved relied on a set of strategies to translate one another’s words and intentions. And in each case, something went very wrong.” Two of the primary strategies he covers are known as default to truth and transparency. Drawing on the experiments of Timothy Levine, who studies deception, Gladwell explains that people are generally wired with a default to truth. “[O]ur operating assumption,” he writes, “is that the people we are dealing with are honest.” Being wired this way has evolutionary advantages: society could hardly function if we assumed everyone we met was out to cheat or harm us. 

But, Gladwell notes, “Default to truth becomes an issue when we are forced to choose between two alternatives, one of which is likely and the other of which is impossible to imagine. ... Default to truth biases us in favor of the most likely interpretation.” Thus, Bernie Madoff was able to run his Ponzi scheme for years despite the fact that his investment operation raised red flags; Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky wasn’t arrested until 2011 despite the fact that a witness had reported seeing him abuse a boy a decade earlier. It was easier to believe that Madoff was some kind of financial wizard than that he was running the biggest financial fraud in U.S. history, easier to believe that the witness was mistaken than that the beloved coach was a serial pedophile.

Relatedly, transparency is the idea that “the way a stranger looks and acts is a reliable clue to the way they feel.” Here Gladwell examines the case of Amanda Knox, the American exchange student who was convicted of the 2007 murder of her roommate and spent four years in an Italian prison before being exonerated. Gladwell calls Knox “the innocent person who acts guilty.” It was not forensic evidence but Knox’s demeanor – reacting inappropriately, appearing indifferent to her roommate’s death – that led to her wrongful conviction. 

Toward the end of "Talking to Strangers," Gladwell brings his analysis back to Sandra Bland by describing how the theories he’s covered impact law enforcement. These days, police officers are trained to suspect everyone, to suppress their natural tendency to default to truth. They engage in what Gladwell terms “haystack searches” – using a minor infraction as a justification to look for something more substantial, like drugs or weapons. In extremely high-crime areas, Gladwell reasons, residents might be more accepting of “the inevitable trade-off between fighting crime and harassing innocent people.” But as a blanket approach – for instance, tailing a driver in a low-crime area and then pulling her over for failure to signal when she changes lanes to let the police officer pass – it doesn’t make sense.

Gladwell ends the book with a plug for default to truth: “To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society,” he writes. “Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative – to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception – is worse.” That either/or conclusion doesn’t feel satisfactory given the damage the author has detailed in previous chapters; default to truth certainly failed Madoff’s investors and Sandusky’s victims. It’s surprising, too, that Gladwell doesn’t address fraud and deception on the Internet, today’s primary meeting place for strangers. Does the virtual world require its own set of tools? Gladwell is better at telling us what’s wrong with our current strategies to deal with strangers than at offering up newer, more relevant ones. His suggestion that we attend to people we don’t know with “restraint and humility” hardly seems up to the task of solving the conundrums he’s presented.

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