Deep into Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, his first book in six years, lies a precise arrangement of words that could function as a Rorschach test — a sentence that will strike you as reassuring if you love his best-selling books or exasperating if you don't.
Writing about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, or KSM, the senior Al Qaeda official and alleged mastermind of 9/11 who was taken to CIA black sites and subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Mr Gladwell is careful to keep the reader on track: “But let us leave aside those broader ethical questions for a moment, and focus on what the interrogation of K.S.M. can tell us about the two puzzles.”
It's a gentle directive for those of “us” making our way through the quagmire with Gladwell as our friendly guide. In a chapter called “K.S.M.: What Happens When the Stranger Is a Terrorist?,” he knows that his descriptions of waterboarding might be distracting. But instead of getting bogged down in “broader ethical questions,” we need to keep our focus trained on the “two puzzles” (more on those in a bit).
Mr Gladwell has never shied away from incendiary material, and his newest book is no exception. In Talking to Strangers he asks why we are “so bad” at understanding people we haven't met before. We often can't tell when a stranger is lying to us (“Puzzle Number One”), and meeting a stranger face-to-face doesn't necessarily help our understanding of who they are (“Puzzle Number Two”). His case studies include the convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky, the double agent Ana Montes, the Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff and — because Mr Gladwell is nothing if not ambitious — Adolf Hitler.
Mr Gladwell says we have a hard time recognizing a liar because we’re prone to what the psychologist Tim Levine calls a “default to truth”: We are social creatures who tend to trust others.
But we can have a hard time recognising a truth teller, too.
To illustrate, he presents the story of Amanda Knox, the American student in Italy who was convicted of killing her roommate in 2007 and later cleared of the crime. Despite overwhelming evidence pointing to another culprit, Italian law enforcement officers were immediately convinced that Ms Knox was guilty because she didn’t act like the prototypical grieving friend. There was a mismatch between her pleas of innocence and her cold, oddball demeanour. As Mr Gladwell puts it, "We are bad lie detectors in those situations when the person we're judging is mismatched."
In other words: We have a hard time with truth tellers who look suspicious and liars who look sincere.
It’s a fair point, if a fairly obvious one, but Mr Gladwell leads up to this moment by dispensing suggestive morsels of theory, like a trail of bread crumbs; his italicized conclusions are designed to hit us with the force of revelation when it finally dawns on us how everything fits together.
Amping up the drama like this doesn’t have to feel cheap; there’s a fine tradition of storytelling as benign manipulation, and in his articles for The New Yorker, Mr Gladwell often gets the balance right. But not here. A chapter on the Stanford rape case from 2015 is a prime example. A jury convicted Brock Turner, a freshman, of sexually assaulting Chanel Miller. Mr Gladwell deems what happened a case of “transparency failure on steroids.”
“A young woman and a young man meet at a party,” he 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?
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. Mr Gladwell seems to realise as much. 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.
In Talking to Strangers, there are glimpses of this mildly chastened Gladwell. He begins and ends his book with the story of Sandra Bland, who was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change and later died in police custody, in what officials deemed a suicide. Bland was black; the officer who pulled her over, Brian Encinia, was white. Mr Gladwell slips in a “cautionary note,” saying that for all the theory he presents “the right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”
But this anodyne sentiment is too vague and banal to explain anything, much less carry a book, and Gladwell knows it. In his strenuous bids for novelty, he has to minimize existing explanations of Encinia as a racist and a bully, concluding instead that the best way to understand Encinia is as “the police officer who does not default to truth.”
This might be classic Gladwell, but it comes across as jarringly incongruous — especially now, when there seems to be a growing awareness that “broader ethical questions” can’t be neatly cordoned off from the issues at hand. As Mr Gladwell notices of someone else’s theory, one he’s trying to counter with his own: “If only things were that simple.”
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know
Little, Brown & Company
386 pages; $30