Book Reviews

Gladwell’s ‘Talking to Strangers’ asks us to humbly consider people in their complexity

26 October 2019

Talking to Strangers is the newest book by Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell – best-selling author of Outliers, Tipping Point, and Blink. It has captured the likes of Oprah, who recently interviewed Gladwell on her podcast, and will have you wrestling with its ideas long after you finish reading.

At an intellectual level, Gladwell is asking us to think about the systems people operate within, and how the beliefs, values and norms underpinning those systems impact human behaviour.

At the heart of his book, he is asking us to humbly consider people in their complexity. To recognize that it takes great care to get to know anyone. He is inviting us to greater compassion and empathy.

The book consists of twelve cases that, at first glance, appear completely random. What does a Cuban spy have to do with the suicide of a famous poet; what does the unjust treatment of Sandra Bland have to do with the wrongful conviction of Amanda Knox?

There’s a common thread weaving these stories together, making the book greater than the sum of its parts. Gladwell wants readers to come away acknowledging the fact that we are terrible at reading people we don’t know (and even the people we think we know) – and this shortcoming has major consequences for society at large.

In order to truly know someone, we ought to take great care in understanding not only our own human nature, but also an individual’s history, current context, and the systems within which they operate.

The book begins and ends with the story of Sandra Bland, the 28-year old African American woman who was arrested by an officer for no good reason, and then found dead in her cell three days later. Gladwell pulls his argument together by explaining how our inability to read strangers compromises those who are in positions that require them to make relatively quick judgements about people they do not know (i.e. police officers, judges, interrogators). Police operate in a system that asks them to read ‘strangers’ quickly and swiftly – even though it’s nearly impossible to do so.

“We think we can transform the stranger, without cost or sacrifice, into familiar and the known, and we can’t,” he writes.

Through his captivating depiction of Sandra Bland, Fidel Castro, Sylvia Plath, Amanda Knox, Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, the cast of Friends, and Adolf Hitler, he reminds us that humans are highly-complex and ambiguous creatures.

“There are clues to making sense of a stranger. But attending to them requires care and attention,” Gladwell writes.

Our tendency to trust what people say and to make assumptions based on what we think we know about someone (or a group of people) are part of the reason why pedophiles and spies go undetected, why juries get it wrong sometimes, and why Sandra Bland was horribly misunderstood that afternoon by officer Brian Encinia.

Issues like police brutality are complex and multifaceted; the discussions are often appropriately centred on racism. Talking to Strangers attempts to reveal a blind spot we may be neglecting in our discussions on such topics. Wrestling with questions about the systems, institutions, culture, and norms that enable police to terrorize citizens, is not meant to explain away people’s wrong or heinous behaviour; rather it asks us to consider all angles.

What are the conditions that allow injustice or abuse to occur in the first place, often repeatedly? In engaging in such discussion, perhaps we can think of creative and preventative solutions to some of society’s most pressing social issues.

Talking to Strangers is a true page-turner and conversation starter, full of high-profile cases spanning issues of sexual assault on campus, wrongful conviction, the pedophilia scandal at Penn State, police brutality, and the challenge with terrorist interrogation.

But Gladwell’s sweeping use of highly-sensitive and controversial cases can come across as an oversimplified – even irresponsible take on complex subject matters. However, I doubt his intention was ever to provide a well-rounded analysis, opinion, or stance of any of the cases he presents. Indeed, he provides several resources for anyone looking to dig deeper into stories.

What I appreciate about Talking to Strangers is that it pushes readers to think critically about the systems within which individuals operate, and challenges us to consider how systems, culture, and historical context influence people’s behaviour.

The kind of introspective, reflective, and critical questioning Gladwell invites his readers into is not easy. As a society, we aren’t always so patient to engage in such reflection, let alone the work it takes to implement systemic change.

For instance, Gladwell writes about sexual abuse on campus. Along with our discussions about consent, why are we not also discussing the culture of frat parties? Where young people tend to get black-out drunk, with people they do not know, in highly sexualized environments? Can we challenge ourselves to think about how such a culture could create the perfect storm for rampant sexual abuse to occur? Or are we satisfied with putting all the onus on the irresponsible and monstrous individuals who mess up? Is it enough to stop there?

Love him or hate him, Gladwell has a way of creating a buzz around topics that we should be talking about. He is the kind of author that leaves the reader feeling perplexed, but hungry for more. More discussion. More answers. I found myself contemplating the ideas he presented long after I was finished reading the book. In this way, he provokes readers to feel something, to think something, and through that process he ignites social conversation.

Maybe in his own, quirky way, he is inviting us to have a broader discussion about the systemic change so desperately needed at such a time as this. At the very least, he is asking us to humbly and compassionately consider humans in their complexity.

“If you are blind to the ideas that underlie our mistakes with strangers – and to the institutions and practices we construct around those ideas – then all you are left with is the personal.”

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