There is a reason why Gladwell is a rock star of nonfiction. This is a dazzling book. Stories are well selected and brilliantly told, ideas are slowly revealed until the reader arrives at a conclusion they didn’t expect. Gladwell is advancing ideas and, sure, they are all open to challenge. Is Levine right about TDT? Are the theories of crime prevention correct? But they are stimulating and convincing — and you won’t regret a minute you spend mastering them.
For a book that asks us to be more empathetic, Talking to Strangers is unexpectedly cold. In Gladwell’s hands, history is little more than a storehouse of colourful stories to be raided for evidence. This sort of detachment is what enables him to see the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford student convicted of sexually assaulting a passed-out woman, Chanel Miller, outside a frat party, as an occasion to talk about how alcohol alters brain chemistry. The lens zooms in so close as to keep Gladwell – and his readers – preserved from the picture right in front of them. It’s impossible to know how his subjects would react to such a technical portrayal, though it would likely leave them feeling as strangers to themselves.
In other words, the price of liberty for innocents such as Bland might be allowing the occasional prolific paedophile and con artist to escape early detection. I’m not convinced the two separate set of circumstances enjoy the relationship Gladwell ascribes to them. But his book is seldom less than a fascinating study of gullibility and the social necessity of trusting strangers.
As ever with books of popular science, the evidence presented is all on one side, consisting of egregious failures that make us wonder how people could be so stupid… until repetition invites the conclusion that this is what people do — the failure is general. In the beguiling moment of the telling we tend to forget that another book could be written about equally amazing instances of human discernment. So I would not recommend this in the style that such books are often advertised... I recommend it at all? Without hesitation. It is not a revelation, but a wonderful provocation which Gladwell delivers like no other, an awakening to just one of the fascinations that lie in ordinary human experience.
Gladwell takes them on with fearless swagger, invoking history, science and anecdote to construct his arguments. There are fascinating examples of “mismatched people” – from Hitler to Knox – whose facial expressions don’t match what lies beneath. The way we interpret these expressions can have dire outcomes, which was why, according to Gladwell, Chamberlain got Hitler so wrong and Knox ended up falsely imprisoned. He makes some conservative propositions: that we might regulate alcohol to curb social and sexual delinquency, for example. Or, that many suicides are due to certain tools (a bridge, or a gas cooker, etc) being available at a certain moment, and that taking these tools away or putting protections in place would prevent the suicides.
The major problem with the Gladwellian Simple Counterintuitive Idea – which is on full display in his latest book, Talking to Strangers – is its tendency to oversell itself. Or, to put it another way, to remind one that what the publishing industry terms “non-fiction” is by no means synonymous with “true”. The distinction has seen Gladwell become perhaps the most serially debunked writer of modern times.
Gladwell bases his book on a single notion called “truth-default theory”. We tend to assume that other people are telling the truth, which is the basis of trust and social cooperation, so liars are hard to spot. Not mentioned here is the well-known opposite phenomenon: that, far from defaulting to truth, we believe only the information that fits with our preconceived biases. Both ideas are right, because the world is complicated, but Gladwell’s job is to make it seem simple... “If I can convince you of one thing in this book,” he announces dramatically, “let it be this: Strangers are not easy.”
Perhaps if we can all become convinced of this novel truth, we will stop harassing and raping one another for good. If only someone like Shakespeare had encoded the lesson centuries ago in some memorable form, like, I don’t know, “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face.”
Superb writing. Masterful structure. Eye-catching facts drawn from elegantly repurposed academic studies. This formula made his earlier books — The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers — smash hits. This time, the result is just as enjoyable to read, yet also oddly unsatisfying... It is too much to say that the times no longer suit Gladwell. But this would have been a better book if it took a harder look at the troubled age in which it has been published.
“A young woman and a young man meet at a party,” Gladwell writes, “then proceed to tragically misunderstand each other’s intentions — and they’re drunk.” This is a bizarre way to describe a situation that ended with a conscious Turner being found on top of an unconscious Miller behind a dumpster. He had pulled down her dress, removed her underwear and assaulted her with his fingers. In what universe is this the result of a tragic misunderstanding?
This is where Gladwell’s insistence on theory can be distorting, rather than clarifying. Theory can provide a handy framework, transforming the messy welter of experience into something more legible, but it can also impose a narrative that’s awkward, warped or even damaging. Gladwell himself seems to realize as much. His 2000 book “The Tipping Point” endorsed the “broken windows” theory that aggressive policing of minor infractions can prevent more serious crimes; years later, as debates about mass incarceration came to the fore, he conceded that the theory was “oversold,” and that he regretted his part in promoting it.
Because of this, the book’s payoff is something of a damp squib, though at least it’s a realistic one: ‘We will never know the whole truth’ about strangers, he tells us. ‘We have to be satisfied with something short of that.’ This is good advice, as is that which he offers elsewhere: ‘what is required of us is restraint and humility.’ All very well, you might say, except that this is coming from the man who became world-famous for his 2005 book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which had a diametrically opposed conclusion. Nevertheless, this better-late-than-never embrace of complexity and of the limitations of the glib ‘storytelling’ approach to understanding human behaviour is welcome – even if it makes Gladwell a stranger to his old self.