My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell has attempted to answer why some of our encounters with strangers go wrong. It was really telling that the stranger-encounters he’d picked for this book are mostly high-profile, sensational, headline-grabbers of the recent US history. Right away, this looked like a money-making project more than anything else.
Gladwell is really good at telling a story, sharing an anecdote, explaining a study, finding and interviewing experts on subjects as niche as ‘blackouts’. He has the ‘voice’ for it, literally – I listened to the very well-produced audiobook version of the book.
What I enjoyed in his other books was how he digested these stories, anecdotes, and studies to find a pattern that explains human behaviour. Pop-science or not, he got us to learn something about ourselves. But in Talking to Strangers, the patterns he found were perplexing and unsatisfying. He was force-fitting stories into a theory that just didn’t make sense. It was connecting for the sake of connecting.
Gladwell’s underlying theory was that humans ‘defaulted to truth’ when they talk to strangers. In other words, humans believed in the good of people. In almost all the encounters he’d picked, ‘default to truth’ was framed as a problem. He explained that this tendency had allowed serious oversight by authority figures leading to the victimisation of the most vulnerable. It happened when Neville Chamberlain believed that Hitler wouldn’t invade Poland, when Bernie Madoff successfully pulled off a Ponzi scheme, when Penn State authorities overlooked several complaints about Jerry Sandusky, a child abuser, and when parents ignored the sexual abuse concerns raised by their own children against the former USA Gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar.
After reading about these cases, naturally one would think that defaulting to truth was a bad idea – that one should never trust strangers. But that would be a terrible lesson, wouldn’t it? A terrible way to end a book.
So after writing himself into a corner, Gladwell tried to dig his way out by presenting a case where a policeman’s encounter with a stranger escalated because he, incredibly, didn’t default to truth! Thus in the conclusion, he said:
This is what happens when the problem statement is wrong – when you frame a systemic issue as a miscommunication between strangers. Sure, miscommunication might have played a part when Brock Turner assaulted a drunk, passed out woman at Stanford University. But to call it the only factor is laughably simplistic. What bugged me the most was Gladwell was not even consistent in his fallacy. He repeatedly framed stories as a ‘talking to stranger’ problem but he also talked about the complex underlying issues that might have influenced the interaction. In Brock Turner’s case, he concluded that it was a campus hook-up gone bad due to Turner’s lack of understanding of consent and the victim’s drunkenness!
The thought that I had repeatedly while listening to him absolve all these horrible people of their sins was that sometimes, an asshole was just an asshole. Gladwell does not handle the cases with the sensitivity it deserves. It seemed to me as if in writing this book, he believed that all people, even rapists and sexual predators, are fundamentally good. I don’t think I’ll be alone in finding that hard to digest.
The parts I actually enjoyed were when he explained theories like Coupling and Transparency that someone else had come up with. But his take on them was overly simplistic and sometimes dangerously wrong. It was ironic when Gladwell went to great lengths to criticise the US Police department’s misinterpretation of the Kansas City experiment when he has been known to extrapolate and fudge data from questionable studies himself.
After warning us that we do not understand strangers at all for pages and pages, I hoped that he’d give readers a framework for dealing with strangers at the end. But the only lesson we are left with is that talking to strangers is… hard. Hmm… most of us knew that already.
Honestly, that is all I wanted when I picked up Talking to Strangers. But this bumbling mess of a book with its triggering stories connected by a wafer-thin theory has left a bad taste with me.