I want to preface this post with that I am a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan. I LOVE his work and so many of his books have changed my perspective on life, particularly Blink and David & Goliath. And I have always loved Gladwell’s ability to challenge my preexisting beliefs, biases, and preconceptions about human behavior. But I don’t think that Talking to Strangers was necessarily his best work.
In Talking to Strangers, Gladwell examines human encounters with strangers, and how so often they go wrong or are misunderstood. Sandra Bland’s 2015 encounter with a local police officer supposedly inspired this book, and Gladwell’s interest in understanding how we behave with strangers. We all know the tragic way that encounter ended (refresher here), and I’m glad Gladwell decided to delve deeper into this issue of understanding strangers’ behavior. But at times I did find his argument falling flat, overlooking some of the more complex issues that lie underneath the surface of just a miscommunication or misunderstanding with a stranger.
Gladwell’s inclusion and analysis of Brock Turner and the Stanford rape case I personally thought to have only skimmed the surface between Brock and Chanel Miller (who used to be Emily Doe, until recently publishing her memoir, Know My Name).
“The People vs. Brock Turner is a case about alcohol,” writes Gladwell. He then continues with walking a fine line between what he claims his argument is (the dangers of blackout drinking, and educated our young population) and what it is not (blaming the victim, or undermining the severity of Turner’s crime). This particular chapter must be read extremely carefully, for if not, you might miss this argument, as I did the first go-round. And after I revisited this chapter, I wholeheartedly agree with this argument: young people are not educated adequately about these dangers, or perhaps just don’t take them seriously enough.
Yet, I think Gladwell only skimmed the surface here, as this particular case involves a lot more complexities of human behavior than just an encounter between strangers. Namely, we not only need to teach our younger populations the dangers of blackout drinking, but also teach our young population the importance of consent, of respecting women and their bodies, of empathy. I think that these issues are also inherent to this encounter, for though this might have had some sort of element of a drunken misunderstanding, that seems to be refuted with the very question of why Turner bolted when he was discovered by two passing bikers that night.
That aside – my favorite examples of the book were Bernie Madoff and Amanda Knox. Gladwell goes deep into just how a con man like Madoff does so well, and how a socially-awkward Knox can be perceived as a liar (and for that matter, a murderer) just because she doesn’t respond to her friend’s death the way that we would expect her to. Both of these cases were incredibly unsettling, mainly because they allowed me to realize the shortcomings of my own perceptions, of my trust, and of my doubts. In short, human don’t behave the way we expect them to behave, and it is incredibly difficult for us to pick up on when someone who seems trustworthy is actually lying, and when someone who seems untrustworthy is telling the truth. Gladwell does an impeccable job of explaining just how our preconceived notions of human behavior can fool us so easily, both of these cases being prime examples.
Of course, Gladwell’s work here was, as always, enlightening, refreshing, introspective and allowed me to look at life through a different lens. With this book, he was certainly still successful in challenging my preexisting beliefs. And my opinion is one among any, and I encourage you to read his work regardless!