A more trusting view of humanity

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Title: Talking to Strangers
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publication year: 2019
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co
ISBN: 9780316478526
Price: RM39.00

His first in six years, “Talking to Strangers” is bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book and this time it centres on communication and also on how we often incorrectly communicate.

Gladwell follows his usual formula of using anecdotes and statistics to justify a hypothesis of his and his thesis is straightforward: It is that certain crime-reducing strategies adopted by police forces in the United States (US) are based on psychological insights and yet turn out to be deeply flawed and somewhat dangerous.

It is these psychology-based crime-reduction techniques that led, in part, to the aggressive stopping of young African-Americans in the US that in turn led to the excessive number of police shootings that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

The book promises to tell us ‘what we should know about the people we don’t know’. But it does not offer many easy answers.

Like previous Gladwell books, it is effortlessly readable and it includes a number of historical and pop culture examples that the reader is forced to succumb to his evidence, finally agreeing his thesis that we are generally not very good at understanding people we do not know, is indeed correct.

He starts — and ends — the book with the case of Sandra Bland, a young African-American woman who was stopped in a small town in Texas by a white police officer in 2015. They had an argument about a cigarette and the officer arrested her. Three days later she killed herself in her jail cell.

The audio recording of the encounter went viral and became part of the national conversation about police aggression against people of colour. Gladwell reproduces the whole exchange and analyses it to determine in what way the officer was trained to misread the woman.

His explanation is largely based on the theories of psychologist Tim Levine, who described the ‘default to truth’ in human interactions. This is simply that we expect people, in most situations, to be telling the truth and this is how spies and fraudsters get away with their capers.

Gladwell then tells the fascinating story of an investment analyst called Harry Markopolos who suspected that fraudster Bernie Madoff was a sham long before anyone else did, and investigated him actively. 

No one would listen to Markopolos’s warnings. He collected his findings and, being a naturally non-trusting guy, afraid of repercussions, tried to pass them over to authorities anonymously. His cloak-and-dagger antics made sure that he was ignored.

He ended up hiding in a house guarded by multiple locks and electronic surveillance. His unnatural suspiciousness had put him ahead of everyone else in uncovering the biggest pyramid scheme in history, but it also paralysed him. “He sat at home, guns at the ready, while the rest of us went about our business,” Gladwell said.

The reader might ask how this more trusting view of humanity ties in at all with the Texan police officer arbitrarily stopping a young black woman in the street which is a perfectly valid question as this book can often go off on scrappy tangents.

Gladwell’s suggestion is that these days, simply because our trusting nature has been violated, we have decided that we’d rather our leaders and guardians pursue their doubts than dismiss them. 

Which leads the police officer to lean in to Bland’s car, judge her slightly strange demeanour (which it transpired later was largely attributable to mental health issues) as a pointer towards potential guilt, and arrest her.

It turns out that police departments across the US had learnt, after years of research, that the natural gullibility of people (the ‘default to truth’ state) is unhelpful in preventing crime in high-crime areas. If police in those areas are actively suspicious of people — using every possible excuse to interrogate them — they make far more arrests in more serious matters.

On top of these, Gladwell also talked about how Cuban spy Ana Montes went unnoticed for years while getting ever higher in the upper levels of US intelligence agencies is as fun as a novel.

This, plus a long and fascinating summary of how American student Amanda Knox was falsely accused of murder in Italy, is all meant to illustrate the rather obvious fact that we can easily misinterpret the words of strangers when those strangers are out of their normal contexts.

The book, then, ends up as a plea to return to our natural state of gullibility; our ‘default to truth’.

What’s slightly odd about “Talking to Strangers”, though, is that there is no defining, take-home idea to contemplate over. However, it may be an impossible goal given the massive scale of the subject.

Gladwell thinks that Bland would not have died in a jail cell had we been more thoughtful as a society. However, Gladwell does not offer many ideas as a writer about how we might be more thoughtful.

The great pleasure of this book, though, is not the clarity of this argument but its relevant detours, the entertaining histories that sometimes only vaguely back up the thesis.

What “Talking to Strangers” offers its readers is an opportunity to take what they know from the headlines and discover the moment that miscommunication led to disaster.

While never excusing the clearly criminal acts in question, Gladwell lays out step by step how those involved mis-read each other, and how that break down in understanding allowed terrible events to unfold.

The book is filled with many such instances taken from history or more recent news that are fascinating to read, even if one doesn’t always agree with the perspective Gladwell holds.

His writing is as immersive as ever and his storytelling skills are commendable. But for a few examples that can be upsetting, this book is a fascinating study of human interactions. It’s great for anyone who enjoys social sciences and even those who prefer fiction.

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