Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers wants to help us more accurately interpret the intentions of strangers, but does so in a way that’s disjointed and impractical. A variety of observations appear throughout: For example, people often misinterpret facial expressions and body language—red herrings which, if removed from the equation, actually improves our predictive ability on average. Also, during the detection of potential lies, we generally default to truth and benefit of the doubt—occasionally in error—since to default to mistrust would result in a breakdown of society. Finally, Gladwell’s more clumsy illustration involves coupling, the theory that certain behaviors are the direct product of a particular time and place, a context without which the behavior may not have occurred.
The coupling theory is reasonable enough, but Gladwell poorly selects the case study of Sylvia Plath, the poet who took her own life by way of oven carbon monoxide poisoning. This suicide method was prominent in the early 60s, during the prevalant use of so-called “town gas.” This type of fuel contains carbon monoxide, and has since been phased out in favor of natural gas. To contextualize Plath’s suicide, Gladwell dismisses the concept of displacement, the assumption that if the oven method had not been available, Plath would have inevitably used another method to take her own life. Instead, Gladwell insists the theory of coupling dictates that the availability of the oven method resulted in a suicide that might not have otherwise occurred, due to that particular method’s unique qualities: It was widely available, required minimal preparation or specialty knowledge, and involved minimal pain and disfigurement.
It may be true that the country-wide removal of this gas system from residential homes did reduce the per-capita tally of suicides that might otherwise have occurred. But the speculation that Plath in particular might have been immune from her self-destructive tendencies is laughable. Gladwell himself outlines the suicide-likelihood resume that checks all the expected boxes: Plath had multiple previous suicide attempts. She was a member of a profession with a suicide rate five times that of the average population. She’d had multiple extended stays at psychiatric hospitals. She was isolated in a foreign country after being rejected by the man she adored. Most telling, she was extensively obsessed with the topics of death and suicide throughout her creative works. Glaring oversights like these make it harder to buy into Gladwell’s conclusions, since trust is an ingredient in his standard modus operandi of “Your intuition might suggest that, but in actuality it’s this!”
Another glaring disparity is that many of the case studies outlined in Talking to Strangers don’t actually involve interactions between…strangers. Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and olympic physician Larry Nassar deceived his many patients and their families. Cuban spy Anna Montes and investment fraud king Bernie Madoff duped numerous colleagues throughout many years. The motives of Sylvia Plath’s suicide involve an (alleged) misinterpretation by friends and family alike, not just fans and literature historians. None of these situations involve anything resembling interactions with “randos” on the street or subway—especially odd, after the book’s opening about the police-civilian motive interpretation of the Sandra Bland story.
The book purports to provide readers insights on how we might more accurately navigate the world of strangers, suggesting that society currently uses the wrong tools and techniques, a failure that leads to avoidable conflict and suffering in society. Yet, far from offering practical advice, much of the subject matter in Talking to Strangers involves larger-than-life sensational stores that are, dare I say it…outliers. The decades-long cons of investment fraud or espionage within the CIA can’t offer readers instruction to better navigate social interactions at convenience stores or nightclubs. Nor will readers come away with criteria to better detect sexual abuse, since Gladwell ultimately comes out in support of the default-to-truth protocol that allowed Sandusky and Nassar to carry out their heinous crimes for as long as they did. By pulling much of the subject matter directly from the tabloids (See: Amanda Knox), Gladwell might have just as well used Lifetime Original Movies as “case studies” on how to navigate social exchanges in the street or supermarket.
In the introduction, Gladwell teases the arrest and subsequent suicide of Sandra Bland as the emblematic example of the book’s themes. After developing a potpourri of different insights over the course of 300 pages, the eventual payoff feels forced. Far from coherently tying together the book’s thesis, the final section reads like a list of coulda-shoulda’s authored by Captain Hindsight. Gladwell plays the monday morning quarterback to suggest numerous things the cop should have done differently, while Sandra’s numerous dubious decisions remain unquestioned. She fails to signal a turn, reads a police officer the riot act, lights a cigarette and declines to put it out, and is noncompliant with subsequent requests. Curiously, if Gladwell had shifted all his criticism from the cop to Sandra, his overstretched theories would have been equally sustained.
Gladwell draws abstract conclusions that are interesting and engaging, but falls flat when applying them to particular situations. But Talking to Strangers’ failure to grow larger than the sum of its parts isn’t a dealbreaking setback. It’s a book you can read during a seven-hour bus ride to make it fly by. It’s good at holding your attention and unearthing curious psychological nuggets. But it relies too heavily on Gladwell’s formulaic framework of “You probably think the reason is [insert cause], right? Wrong.” In so doing, it overreaches in its stated goal of trying to make definitive sense of our misguided interactions with strangers. It would have been a bit more honest to drop the charade of an overarching theme, but his extensive attempts to bend over backwards may very well fool (and please) many of the strangers in his readership.