Gladwell pulls punches with the shocking Talking to Strangers

Review by Benjamin Godfrey

Talking to Strangers
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN 978-0316-47852-6, Hardcover 387 pp. 10 September 2019

Malcolm Gladwell’s books could wrongly be mistaken for kitschy, self-help books that the publisher cynically tossed together to turn a fast buck. The new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, does not give advice about becoming a better conversationalist, overcoming shyness or tips at conducting an interview. Instead, Gladwell explores how easily people misinterpret motives in human interactions. He reveals information that will fundamentally change one’s perception about talking to strangers, and one might swear off speaking with strangers ever again. This seems like an exaggerated claim, but it isn’t because the book’s facts are that unnerving, and Gladwell’s technique, casually dropping factual bombshells as if he hasn’t really noticed the ramifications, supplies the book with a constant source of understated humor. The potpourri of topics discussed include: suicide rates; increases in crime rates following aggressive enforcement; police officers that can recite complicated training manuals verbatim; a doctor that sexually abuses his patients right in front of their parents; transcripts from a rape trial; a highly placed double agent at the DIA sending reports to Cuba; Cortez meeting Montezuma; facts about Stanley Milgram’s psychological experiments; Amanda Knox, an exchange student from Seattle who was convicted of murder in Italy and subsequently released; and Sandra Bland, a woman who reportedly committed suicide in police custody after being arrested for a minor traffic infraction.

Gladwell’s style is of an amiable but distracted man explaining how to put together a jigsaw puzzle to an audience with incomplete puzzle pieces. It is a technique that works; a reader turns pages hoping for answers which never arrive, and every chapter becomes more puzzling while he reveals one freakish fact after another. His veneer of scientific impartiality is genial, amusing and at times frightening and frustrating because he doesn’t commit to most conclusions. This is particularly true in his section about disbelief. He discusses Ana Montes, an American born woman who became enamored with Marx in college. She was well regarded with glowing recommendations and a medal from the former director of the CIA, George Tenet. She eventually worked at the DIA for many years, but it turns out that she, allegedly, was a Cuban spy from day one.

Does Gladwell understand what he is telling us? Yes, he does, but he cooly goes on to explain another overlooked fact and then another, and another. The difficultly in his style is not in understanding what he is saying, this is clear enough, but in coming to terms with his tendency to avoid coming to determined conclusions. In the above case, questions such as: did Ana Montes have a partner? or was this partner detected? aren’t exactly left unanswered, but then again they aren’t really explicitly explored either.
His facts are starling, but he doesn’t explain what follows from his facts. For example, he points out that 50% of the people that jump off the Golden Gate Bridge come from the East Bay. They drive over the Bay Bridge and through the San Francisco before leaping to their doom. This is an unusual statistic, but what frustrates a reader is Gladwell stops short of expounding what the facts mean, if anything. In his discussion, he convincingly argues that people who want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge wouldn’t commit suicide in any other way. The fact that Gladwell isn’t aware that former mayor Willie Brown built a fence across the bridge several years back doesn’t invalidate Gladwell’s arguments. At one point, he lists a string of ways that one could commit suicide, but he stops short of exploring the idea that someone who wants to commit suicide by flying an airplane into a skyscraper wouldn’t commit suicide in any other way. Curiously, he finds that the suicide rates in England are linked to the suicide rates in the US, and that after England changed the type of gas used for heating, the suicide rates in both countries dropped dramatically.

Every chapter becomes increasingly shocking, and ironically, it is what Gladwell doesn’t tell, or can’t tell, that startles the most, and the more one understands the subject, the more startling Gladwell’s facts are. This leaves the reader yearning for further research which internet searches provide in some cases, and despite Gladwell’s professed optimism a reader often feels despair.

Some examples, such as Stanley Milgram’s experiments, are very familiar to psychology students, but Gladwell reveals new information about these experiments. In the Milgram experiment, Milgram hires “actors” to pretend to receive an electric shock administered by a test subject who is being tested on how well the test subject follows orders from an authority figure. In Gladwell’s retelling, Milgram chose his first “actor”, precisely because he was not skilled as an actor. Gladwell also reveals that much of the decor of the experiment was designed to make the test seem as fake as possible. These facts are not dwelt on, but if true, the famous behaviorist’s test will have to be extensively reassessed by scientists.

A sub theme of Gladwell’s book is that people make snap judgements about people that they meet, and they are often very wrong. He extends this point and giving examples of people that he thinks have been misjudged by the media or by the courts. He goes on to discuss the television series Friends in conjunction with a scientific system called FACS (Facial Action Coding System) wherein the nuances of a persons facial muscles are coded into a complex series of letters and numbers. This chapter segues into a story about Amanda Knox. It is in this chapter that Gladwell seems to slip up. Amanda Knox, an exchange student from Seattle, was convicted of a murder in Italy, that was sensationalized in the European tabloids. Her conviction was overturned based on an FBI report after she had spent a year in jail, but as of this writing, new evidence of her guilt has come forward, and a new trial is expected. Gladwell believes that Amanda Knox is innocent. He argues that she is not guilty, and that she became the focus of a police investigation because her strangeness irritated the police. She is merely “mismatched” in Gladwell’s vocabulary. What Gladwell misses or simply omits is how large the disconnect between Knox’s words and actions are compared to what one expects from a more psychological balanced person.

Talking to Strangers is a better book than it’s predecessor, Blink, because its findings are more startling, and its scandalous nature makes it more fun to read. Malcolm Gladwell’s technique of feigning unawareness about how startling the facts are makes the book more fun because the reader must remain actively alert and engaged to follow Gladwell as he completes one pirouette after another revealing information on top of incendiary information before the establishment becomes aware. The greatest difficulty, is that the conclusions that Gladwell leaves unspoken are not immediately obvious, or more precisely, they are difficult to expound upon without feeling there is a risk of being retaliated against.

One senses throughout the book that Gladwell has a theme that cannot be openly acknowledged. One gets a nagging sense that the book is really about unheeded, and unexplored facts concerning the 9/11 attack that changed the US nearly two decades ago, but can a reviewer unequivocally make that claim? Perhaps not, and this is disconcerting and unusual in a work of non-fiction . As one reads, it often feels like Gladwell isn’t writing about America the Beautiful, but a dystopia, and that he must equivocate in a free press is a marker in how far we have changed, and it could indicate where we are going.

The topics Gladwell discusses can not easily be brought up at social gatherings, but one might be surprised at how warmly they are received by selected people. The facts hold on to one’s consciousness in the the same what that campfire stories do, and after all, bringing these subjects up, can help you talk to strangers.

About the reviewer:  Benjamin Godfrey is better known as an illustrator, with work for clients ranging from The Washington Post, San Francisco Examiner Magazine, and The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. He has published art criticism, and he intermittently publishes ‘zines including: Popular Bardolatry and Messages From the Crop Circles which is about San Francisco and literature. He is currently writing on a novel and a play.