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Talking to Strangers: Malcolm Gladwell at his best

Book Review: New Yorker writer takes a fire poker to our fixed set of assumptions by examining why society is so polarised and what we can do about it

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
ISBN-13: 978-0241351567
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £20

“Polarised” is a buzz word we hear annoyingly often these days. Politics, war, Brexit, Trump, abortion, guns – either you’re one way or the other, in or out, at the table or on the menu. Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers, hinges on an incident that provoked “polarised” opinion. It goes like this: a black woman is pulled over on a road in Texas for failing to indicate when changing lane. A white male police officer walks up and begins questioning her, asking her to get out of the car. They argue, it escalates. He tries forcibly to remove her, she protests. Another unit is called. She is arrested and jailed. Three days later she is found dead in her cell.

Harrowing. Confusing. Unfathomable. You may remember the incident. The video, recorded from a dashcam, was viewed several million times on YouTube. Afterwards, people went crazy. Many believed racial prejudice was to blame. Only months previously an 18-year-old black man had been shot dead by Missouri police for allegedly shoplifting a pack of cigars. For others, however, incompetence was the only explanation. In their minds, the episode was so unique and odd that each detail warranted parsing. “One side saw a forest, but no trees,” Gladwell observes. “The other side saw trees and no forest.”

The question is: what really happened? Talking to Strangers is an attempt to understand that. Or, like any good journalism, not just "what", but "who" and "why" and "when" and "where" and "how". And, like even better journalism, the sum of all the answers added together. Because each side of the polarised opinion was probably right, in its way. That doesn't make it helpful. That doesn't make it enough.

Gladwell puts forward a simple theory as to what the crux of the issue was: “they were strangers to each other”. He maintains that “if we were willing to engage in some soul-searching about how we approach and make sense of strangers […] she would not have ended up dead in a Texas jail cell”.


That may seem over-simplistic. Gladwell is a figure who provokes his own kind of “polarised” opinion; his critics accusing him of being everything from too general, to unfactual and untrustworthy. But after reading the 300 or so pages of this book, I couldn’t help but find his words enchanting.

Fearless swagger

Talking to Strangers is the New Yorker staff writer at his best: drawing on diverse and interesting sources to give a new way of looking things. Read it, if not to be convinced, then to be shook up, or at the very least, entertained. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you to read Gladwell. You’ve likely read, or absorbed by osmosis, works like The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers (famous for popularising the 10,000 hours rule), What the Dog Saw, or David and Goliath. Perhaps you read his New Yorker columns, or listen to his podcast, Revisionist History. If ever there were a rock star journalist, it’s Gladwell, and if there’s one thing rock stars do, it’s get under our skin.

“Lots of third rails! I love it!” is how Helen Conford at Penguin UK reacted when she finished the manuscript. A third rail, for those who didn’t know (me), is an issue that is “charged” like the live rail on a train track and is considered so untouchable that any public figure who goes near it will suffer grave consequences.

Among the ones in this book: the false conviction of Amanda Knox; the sex abuse scandal of US gymnastics coach Larry Nassar; the case of Brock Turner vs The People; the trial of convicted paedophile Jerry Sandusky; the aforementioned incident with Sandra Bland; and more.

Gladwell takes them on with fearless swagger, invoking history, science and anecdote to construct his arguments. There are fascinating examples of “mismatched people” – from Hitler to Knox – whose facial expressions don’t match what lies beneath. The way we interpret these expressions can have dire outcomes, which was why, according to Gladwell, Chamberlain got Hitler so wrong and Knox ended up falsely imprisoned. He makes some conservative propositions: that we might regulate alcohol to curb social and sexual delinquency, for example. Or, that many suicides are due to certain tools (a bridge, or a gas cooker, etc) being available at a certain moment, and that taking these tools away or putting protections in place would prevent the suicides.

Devil’s advocate

It’s certainly not neutral territory. But Gladwell is a provocateur, a devil’s advocate. This is, after all, the man who wrote an essay defending Lance Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs, only to admit to being completely anti-doping himself.

I think the trick to reading Gladwell is to notice the tongue in his cheek. His theories are fire pokers to our fixed set of assumptions.

In this book, the “lifehack” reductivism of his early days – (“the power of thinking without thinking”, “how little things can make a big difference”) – gives way to a gentler ambivalence. In short: trusting people too much is our Achilles heel, but we have no choice but to cede to it. He forgives the parents of Nassar’s victims, many of whom were in the room, oblivious, when the abuse occurred. “Defaulting to the truth is not a crime,” he tells us. “It is a fundamentally human tendency.” In the end he plumps for the lesser of two evils. Blind trust, he argues, is better than blind suspicion. Suspicion led to tangles like “the Kansas City Experiments”, where controversial policing methods spread without regulation and paved the way for what happened to Sandra Bland.

Indeed, blind trust is partly what the book is asking of us. After all, talking to strangers is what writers do. It’s certainly what a writer as world-famous and attention-grabbing as Gladwell is doing – reaching across the imaginary border between two people, putting on a face and seeing what we make of it. And if we trust him, we’re only human.

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic