Malcolm Gladwell
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Malcolm Gladwell on the Pitfalls of ‘Talking to Strangers’

Ahead of Sept. 21 event, the author talks taking on controversial subjects, and why his new audiobook is a podcast

Malcolm Gladwell is a complete stranger to me.

Sure, I’ve read a few of his books—The Tipping Point, Outliers, Blink, and his latest, Talking to Strangers—and listened to most of the four seasons of his podcast Revisionist History. We talked over the phone, recently, and had a very enlightening conversation about his work. Most of the gatekeepers in the modern media world would now consider me eminently qualified to write a profile of Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell himself, however, would not. Because the truth is I don’t know him at all, really. I can tell you what point he argued in which episode of his podcast. I can definitely remember when I most emphatically agreed or disagreed with his conclusions. I can also do an impression of his voice that makes my co-workers crack up.

But that doesn’t equip me to profile Gladwell as a person; all I’m really qualified to do is profile his ideas. Unfortunately, journalists often feel that’s not enough. They want to believe they understand something deeper about their subjects, which can lead them to overreach.

“I’ve always had a baseline skepticism about journalistic profiles,” Gladwell tells me. “I always feel they’re overly ambitious. The idea that you can sit down with a stranger and come to a reckoning of who they are, and what motivates them, in a short period of time is just nonsense. It’s just not true.”

Gladwell isn’t singling out journalists here. The conceptual through-line of his new Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don’t Know is that we’re all downright terrible at reading people we don’t know—gleaning their true feelings, motives or intentions.

“Journalists are not immune from the mistakes that all of us make, and maybe we ought to be a lot more cautious,” says Gladwell. “I think the best journalists do that. The best work, the most successful profiles, are modest in their aspiration. They aim to focus on a very specific part of the person being profiled, as opposed to a global assessment.” 

Misreading and Writing

Throughout his new book, Gladwell lays out example after example of times that the misreading of strangers has had historically catastrophic consequences. And in the chapter on Jerry Sandusky and the sex abuse scandal at Penn State, we see a couple of examples of profiles that writers would probably like to take back, including one from the Philadelphia Inquirer that lays it on thick about a pre-disgraced Sandusky’s “ennobling” qualities.

But even here, Gladwell’s point is not to shame the writers. On the contrary, the Sandusky section of the book attempts to build a complex case for why the people around Sandusky didn’t understand what was going on at the time. He argues that the fallout from the case led to a lot of misinformed scapegoating, including of Joe Paterno.

MG_BookCover-1938“I think Joe Paterno was treated abominably. It was completely wrong to blame him,” says Gladwell. “Having read hundreds of pages of the court transcripts, I don’t think a plausible case could be made that Joe Paterno had any inkling whatsoever of Jerry Sandusky’s activities. He did exactly what he was supposed to do—he notified his superiors immediately and turned the matter over to them. That is what he was supposed to do. I’m quite sympathetic to some of the Penn State people who feel that case was mishandled.”

The Sandusky part of the book is perhaps the toughest to analyze, and the easiest to criticize, partially because it’s a very limited discussion of a sprawling topic. Entire books could be written about who knew what, and when, in the Penn State story—and, of course, they have. The titles of these books alone make their vastly different conclusions apparent: Game Over: Jerry Sandusky, Penn State and the Culture of Silence will never be confused for The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment. The latter goes even further than Gladwell, arguing that Sandusky may very well be innocent, and that the same “repressed memory therapy” that spurred the fraudulent “Satanic Panic” in the 1980s played a huge role in the case—but he takes 400 pages to explore this argument, compared to Gladwell’s 35-page chapter.

Campus Conundrum

The Penn State case is far from the only controversial topic Gladwell takes on in Talking With Strangers. In a chapter called “Transparency Case Study: The Fraternity Party,” he uses the 2015 case in which Stanford University student Brock Turner was convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault to examine the problem of alcohol abuse on college campuses. This would be a dicey proposition by any measure: Turner’s assault of Chanel Miller (who was known at the time as “Emily Doe”; she revealed her real name earlier this month) made national headlines when Santa Clara County judge Aaron Persky ignored prosecutors’ recommendation of a six-year sentence and gave Turner six months in county jail (he ended up serving three months), plus three years probation. Perksy’s assertion that Turner’s lack of a criminal record and upstanding character warranted a reduced sentence led to a successful recall of the judge in 2018. The case led to changes in California state law about the definition of rape and the mandatory minimum-sentencing for sexual assault of an unconscious or intoxicated person.

“The People vs. Brock Turner is a case about alcohol,” writes Gladwell. He then proceeds to walk a very fine line in defining what his argument is about (a salient point about a lack of education for young people about the dangers of blackout drinking) and what it is not (a denial of the seriousness of Turner’s crime).

Gladwell knows that with both the Sandusky and Turner cases, he is venturing into territory that can be not only difficult to write, but also difficult to read.

“I have, after 30 years, an enormous amount of faith in my readers. I know who my readers are, and I know my readers read things carefully. Those chapters both require careful reading,” he says. “I am not blaming the victim in the Brock Turner case. I am making an argument about how we prevent these kinds of things in the future. That’s a subtle point, but I think people who listen to my podcast or read my books are totally fine with subtle points.”

Indeed, fans of Revisionist History will be familiar with other times Gladwell has taken on topics that other writers might consider taboo; for instance, the Brown v. Board of Education episode “Miss Buchanan’s Period Of Adjustment” (possibly the best episode he has produced), in which he attempted to lay out the problems black teachers faced in the wake of the landmark desegregation ruling without undermining the importance of the decision itself.

Gladwell says it’s not so much that he’s drawn to controversial topics as he feels like he should be taking them on at this point in his career.

“I would say that I feel I have an obligation to write about those kinds of things because I can. I’m now in a position—having been a journalist for a long time, and having established a reputation for myself and having a readership—to have the freedom to write about those things. I can take the blow,” he says. “Sure, people will get upset, but it’s fine. I mean, I can handle that. A 25-year-old journalist starting out would be taking a real risk for their career if they were to approach some of these topics. I think when you’re an established journalist, you have an obligation to go where others can’t or don’t want to.”

‘History’ Lessons

The type of material Gladwell takes on in Talking to Strangers is not the only parallel with his podcast—in fact, the whole book’s layout is not unlike an episode of Revisionist History, or perhaps a whole season packed into one book. It starts out with one character—Sandra Bland, an African-American woman from Chicago who was famously the victim of a bizarre and frankly terrifying traffic stop by a white cop in Houston, Texas, in 2015—and then threads through other case studies before returning to Bland’s story, and a fierce indictment of the policing system responsible for it. 

This is a classic setup for a Revisionist History episode—the aforementioned Brown v. Board of Education episode, for instance, employed the same structure. And the way Talking to Strangers is so thoroughly character-driven seems like a lesson Gladwell picked up from doing the podcast as well. Though Revisionist History is perhaps most famous for episodes like 2016’s “Blame Game,” which smashed popular misconceptions about the “unintended acceleration” recalls of Toyota vehicles in 2009, 2010 and 2011, I’ve always found the best episodes to be the ones solidly built around characters first, and Gladwell’s trademark data analysis second.

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Gladwell says it’s no accident that his latest book is so reminiscent of the podcast, and that Revisionist History has had a “profound impact” on the way he writes books.

“The podcast has been the dominant thing in my life now for four years, and it’s the thing I’m most excited about. It’s been a way to kind of—not re-invent, that’s too strong a word, but learn a whole new skill, and think about storytelling in a whole new way. It absolutely influenced Talking to Strangers,” he says.

The most definitive sign of that influence is the fact that instead of the traditional audiobook, in which he reads the text, he actually created—well, basically a podcast. It includes the audio from his interviews for the book, as well as archival tape that he discusses in the book, and music. And he’s more excited about it than the print version.

“It’s like a six-hour episode of Revisionist History,” he says. “This is an emotional book, and I feel like in some ways the audio book is better than the print book, because you get more. You hear Sandra Bland at the beginning talking about ‘my beautiful kings and queens,’ and she stays with you. And at the end, the whole thing, about the cop and the deposition, [State Trooper Brian] Encinia explaining himself, I have that tape. So you hear him, and it becomes really, really visceral and real.

And then you’re hearing this Janelle Monae song; she wrote a song about all the police shootings where she names all the victims. So it’s a whole overwhelming experience when you listen to it. I really encourage people to experience the book that way.”

‘Blink’ Again

Gladwell cites a number of examples in his new book about how our own misplaced confidence in our ability to read other people has had disastrous consequences throughout history.

He discusses Neville Chamberlain’s famous failure to judge Adolf Hitler’s intentions, leading him to foolishly return from Munich waving a piece of paper signed by Hitler, and promising “peace in our time.” He examines how the CIA went for years thinking they had faithful spies throughout Cuba, only to discover later that almost all of them were double agents working for Castro. He explains how truly astonishing the con job that Bernie Madoff pulled on his victims really was—all because he managed to create a false aura of sincerity and good intentions. On the flip side, in one of the best chapters for explaining our inability to read the people around us, he deconstructs how Amanda Knox was convicted of murder not because she was guilty, but because she unintentionally acted guilty.

If all of this about perception and the length of time it takes to accurately parse information sounds a lot like Gladwell’s 2005 book Blink, that’s because it is. In fact, Talking to Strangers came out of Gladwell’s belief that his book about snap judgement had been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted in the media.

Blink was a fascinating and frustrating experience for me,” he says. “Because Blink was really a cautionary tale about our first impressions. It was a story that began with all the ways they work, and then the latter half of the book was about all the ways that we’re misled by our intuition. That didn’t quite come across. So this book first of all zeroes in on a particular kind of first impression, which is the relationship with a stranger. But I really wanted to squarely address what can go wrong, and the consequences of that. Just as David and Goliath grew out of Outliers, this book grows out of Blink. With a lot of my books, I write it once, then I sit with it, then I come back and tackle the issue again.”

Ultimately, Talking to Strangers looks at the problem of how we misunderstand strangers from both a macro and micro perspective. In the way it suggests the need for reform in our institutions—like policing, the justice system and military-intelligence interrogation policies (the section on the biological reasons for the ineffectiveness of torture is a stunner)—it argues that action is needed to bring the systems of society in line with how our brains really work. But on another, individual level, it also suggests that the “default to truth” principle most of us use in everyday dealings with each other isn’t such a bad thing—even if it can be wrong. The alternative, he suggests, can be much worse.

“Let’s make sure that our institutions and practices conform to who we are,” says Gladwell. “But let’s accept ourselves for who we are, and stop pretending otherwise. We should stop beating ourselves up over our fundamental tendency to trust each other, and instead intelligently adapt to it.”

Bookshop Santa Cruz and the Humanities Institute at UCSC present Malcolm Gladwell talking about his new book ‘Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don’t Know’ at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo. The $40 ticket package includes entry to the event and one copy of ‘Talking to Strangers’ with signed bookplate, to be picked up at the event. bookshopsantacruz.com. 

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