Malcolm Gladwell Examines the Real Danger of Talking to StrangersPosted by Cybil on September 1, 2019
In the past two decades, all five of his books have made The New York Times' bestseller list. There’s even a term, “Gladwellian,” to describe his style, which weaves together academic research and storytelling to explain trends in popular culture.
In his sixth and latest book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know, Gladwell argues that humans are often terrible at understanding people we don’t know—and most of us have no idea we’re prone to these errors. “If I can convince you of one thing in this book,” he writes, “let it be this: Strangers are not easy.”
Misreading people is no simple matter; it can cause massive conflict, death, even war. To illuminate this point, Gladwell revisits some well-known scandals, including the Stanford rape case, the wrongful conviction of Amanda Knox, the Jerry Sandusky child abuse case—probing the cases for unseen dynamics that contributed to conflict. His writing may cause readers to rethink how they judge others in the future.
Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw talked to Gladwell about his latest work and how he approaches controversial topics. Their conversation has been edited.
Goodreads: I'm keenly aware that we are strangers and I'm interviewing you about a book on strangers. Is there anything you want to be sure I don't get wrong about you or the book?
Malcolm Gladwell: I would say maybe you should keep in mind that the possibility for misreading me, or my misreading you, is larger than we both imagine.
GR: That’s fair. I don't think this is necessarily what you intended, but one of my takeaways from Talking to Strangers is that I have to be less trusting of people.
MG: Less? I would have said your takeaway should be that you should be just as trusting. Just be aware that you run a slight chance of things going awry. Trust is something that I would like to promote in the book, not disparage.
GR: I think you make that very clear at the end. I don’t mean to imply that your book is anti-trusting people. What do you hope people take from your book?
Also, I would like people to slow down in the assessments they make of others, just to allow for the possibility that they made an error and don’t even know it. And finally, I'm very close to despairing that human beings will never successfully account for the role of environment—the bit about coupling in the book. There just seems to be this weird thing, particularly about the Western mindset, that it's really hard to get people to take the environment seriously.
The thing I've been saying about this book is: Some books take something complicated and simplify it. This book is the opposite: It takes what we think is simple and complicates it. It's not possible to tie up all of the conclusions in the book with a bow.
It deals with some very difficult, messy problems—like the Sandusky case or the Stanford rape case—and I want people to appreciate how difficult and messy these cases are. You can’t simplify them. You want to take them seriously to know what to do about those kinds of situations. The Sandusky thing…. It's just a mess. I have no idea what I think about that case anymore. All I know is you can't put the president of Penn State in jail. That's the only thing I can say with absolute certainty.
GR: You waded into some extremely controversial topics: police brutality, campus sexual assault…
GR: I think you're saying that these are complicated and messy topics, but even that seems like a complicated, messy statement in 2019. Do you worry about how that will be received?
MG: I don’t worry about that, no. I think people in 2019 are interested in the complications of these cases. If you compare the conversations we're having about these issues today to the ones we had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, the ones 10 years ago are empty of nuance, incomplete, and simplistic. And by contrast, the ones that we're having today are complicated.
Think about the Kavanaugh hearings. In 1960, you don't have that conversation. You have a mild version of it with the Supreme Court hearings of Clarence Thomas. But with Kavanaugh, my God! There were more interesting, thoughtful, passionate, complex responses to that. So I think the time is ripe for this kind of thing. I think for the first time, people are taking some of these issues seriously.
People did not take campus sexual assault seriously 15 years ago. The reason they got upset about what happened at Stanford was, they're interested in exploring this and talking about it in this full moral, psychological complexity.
GR: When you put it that way, I don't disagree with you at all. But at the same time, it seems that platforms like Twitter and algorithms favor flattened, less nuanced arguments.
GR: Knowing you were writing about such complicated topics, did you have a sensitivity reader?
MG: Yes. I had a group of women in their late teens and early 20s read that Stanford chapter and give me very specific responses. It was rewritten three, four, five times as a result. I don’t think you can write about these kinds of issues unless you’re willing to work with people who have…. I might pretend I'm the most sensitive, woke person on earth, but I guarantee you—and I discovered—that when an intelligent, thoughtful 19-year-old woman reads the same chapter, she has intelligent, thoughtful critiques that never would have occurred to you.
That is just a function of generational differences, gender, and what it means to be on campus today. I learned a huge amount from my readers on some of these issues.
GR: Can you share how the tone or the direction of that Stanford chapter shifted?
MG: Two things happened. First of all, my readers surprised me in how willing they were to tackle the issue of alcohol's role in sexual abuse. I'm thinking of one of my readers who has just finished her freshman year in college and she experiences that firsthand: all the people she knows who get blackout drunk every weekend, and all the problems that creates for having meaningful interactions with them, and on and on and on.
But where I learned a lot was: How do you tread the line between asking people—men and women—to be more responsible and saying, "You are to blame in your own victimization." That's an insanely hard line to walk. I could not have walked it without the help of people who were reading that chapter.
I think, in the end, I thread the needle. Probably there are those who will object. But it’s certainly a lot better for having done that work than it was in the early drafts. I have a 23-year-old assistant who read every word and gave me all kinds of feedback. There were a lot of reactions—some subtle and some not so subtle—from people who have been through that horrible experience themselves.
Keep in mind that when I went to college, I never knew a single person who blacked out. And in fact, I didn't even know that such a thing as a "blackout” drunk existed. Today you can't find a college student who isn't intimately familiar with that word and its cases.
GR: The numbers you included in that chapter surprised me—namely, the extent to which very heavy drinking in college is normalized. Although it also made me realize that it's possible people were blackout drunk when I was in college and I just didn't know.
MG: That may be the case with me, too, although I went to school in Canada. We were all drinking beer. It's very hard to get blackout drunk on beer. You have to be doing shots of hard liquor, and that just wasn't a part of the drinking repertoire of my college years.
GR: I really appreciated the way your book is structured, how it uses these ways we misread strangers to examine what happened with Sandra Bland. What came first in writing this book? Did you intend for it to be about her?
MG: I had started thinking about the book before the Sandra Bland case happened. But pretty soon after it happened, it was clear to me that that was the story I wanted to tell. It was the emotionally resonant story. It really disturbed me. And I finally understood what the point of this book I had been mulling over was: to try and make sense of this particular tragedy.
I had been thinking about writing about alcohol for a while, I had been thinking about torture, I had been thinking of these issues, but I didn't know what the point was. When Sandra Bland died, and I thought about that case, I finally understood what the point of my book would be. It needed a moral reason, I thought. You can't deal with these incredibly complicated issues without having a reason. Otherwise it's exploitative. You’re just…what's the word I'm looking for? There is a word I'm looking for which describes the kind of prurient exploitation of sensational events. That's what I wanted to avoid.
GR: I appreciated that you managed to present the case for empathy. I know I sort of asked this earlier, but do you worry about how that will be received?
MG: I’m not someone who worries about how things are received in general. I feel like, if you want to write thoughtfully about difficult topics, part of the deal you make with yourself is that some people will criticize you. And that's fine. Is everyone going to agree with everything I say in this book? No. And I hope not! I'm not sure that I have come down the right way on some of these chapters, but I think the chapters are useful nonetheless.
Some of my readers so far have said, "I found that chapter fascinating. I disagree with you." That makes me happy. I've made somebody think about something in a considered way. I've never been a writer who's looked to persuade his readers; I'm more interested in capturing their interest and curiosity.
GR: Being in the public eye for as long as you have been, does that shape how you feel about the work you put out? Does it increase the pressure?
MG: I think it decreases the pressure because I don't have to make the case. If you have a body of work and people are familiar with the way you think and the work you've done in the past, somebody might say, “Well, I've read this-and-this of his or listened to his podcast, I'll try this.” Whereas if they don't even know who I am, they might not even want to try it. They might just roll their eyes. So it is a lot easier.
I see that more with my podcast, which goes in some lunatic directions. People will go for it because they liked a previous episode. I've got a podcast this season coming up that's about Taco Bell, and Pat Boone. There's no reason to listen to an episode about Pat Boone and Taco Bell, unless you're giving the author of that episode a great deal of slack. And I have some slack.
GR: Because you're in the public eye, you also hear the voices of people who disagree with you. I’m thinking of when you tweeted that you were comfortable hearing Steve Bannon speak at the New Yorker Festival, and many people objected. How do you deal with that?
MG: I don't read those Twitter responses. I mean, it's just Twitter; it's not the end of the world. I don't understand why people have pathologized disagreement. I disagree with my mom about a long list of things. I still love her more than almost any other human being in the world. I don't understand why occasional disagreements on the kinds of things that people disagree with each other about should trigger some emotional breakdown on my part. I disagree with almost everybody in my life about something. And the question of whether Steve Bannon should or should not be permitted to speak at the New Yorker Festival…I can understand both positions. In fact, I did a whole podcast about both positions. It's fine. That's why we have a free country.
GR: Before we go, I’d love to know whom you’re inspired by in terms of your own writing or reading.
MG: I always give the same answer, which is: Janet Malcolm and Michael Lewis, who I consider to be the two great nonfiction writers in my orbit. I always read them and look for ways to make my own writing more resemble theirs to the extent that's possible.
GR: What are you reading now?
MG: I mostly read thrillers. Because I have a little break before the book comes out, I'm reading a larger number of thrillers than normal. Dan Silva has a new one out, which I'm itching to get my hands on. I'm also reading a book about the Shah of Iran, called The Fall of Heaven, which came out a few years ago. It's a great book.
Malcolm Gladwell's Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know will be available in the U.S. on September 10. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.