Malcolm Gladwell is a complete stranger to me. Sure, I’ve read a few of his past books—The Tipping Point, Outliers, Blink and his latest, Talking to Strangers—and listened to most of the four seasons of his podcast Revisionist History. We recently talked over the phone and had an enlightening conversation about his work. Most of the gatekeepers in the modern media world would now consider me qualified to write a profile of Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell himself, however, would not. Because the truth is, I don’t really know him at all.
“I’ve always had a baseline skepticism about journalistic profiles,” Gladwell says. “I always feel they’re overly ambitious. The idea that you can sit down with a stranger and come to a reckoning of who they are, and what motivates them, in a short period of time is just nonsense. It’s just not true.”
Gladwell isn’t singling out journalists here. The conceptual through-line of his new Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don’t Know is that we’re all downright terrible at reading people we don’t know—gleaning their true feelings, motives or intentions.
“Journalists are not immune from the mistakes that all of us make, and maybe we ought to be a lot more cautious,” Gladwell says. “I think the best journalists do that. The best work, the most successful profiles, are modest in their aspirations. They aim to focus on a very specific part of the person being profiled, as opposed to a global assessment.”
Throughout his new book, Gladwell lays out example after example of instances where the misreading of strangers resulted in historically catastrophic consequences. The chapter on Jerry Sandusky and the sex-abuse scandal at Penn State includes a couple of examples of profiles that the writers would probably like to take back, including one from the Philadelphia Inquirer that lays it on thick about a pre-disgraced Sandusky’s “ennobling” qualities. But even here, Gladwell’s point is not to shame the writers. On the contrary, the Sandusky section of the book attempts to build a complex case for why the people around Sandusky didn’t understand what was going on at the time. He argues that the fallout from the case led to misinformed scapegoating, including of Joe Paterno.
“I think Joe Paterno was treated abominably. It was completely wrong to blame him,” Gladwell says. “Having read hundreds of pages of the court transcripts, I don’t think a plausible case could be made that Joe Paterno had any inkling whatsoever of Jerry Sandusky’s activities. He did exactly what he was supposed to do—he notified his superiors immediately and turned the matter over to them. That is what he was supposed to do. I’m quite sympathetic to some of the Penn State people who feel that case was mishandled.”
The Sandusky chapter is perhaps the toughest to analyze, and the easiest to criticize, partially because it’s a very limited discussion of a sprawling topic. Entire books could be written about who knew what, and when, in the Penn State story—and, of course, they have. The titles of these books alone make their vastly different conclusions apparent: Game Over: Jerry Sandusky, Penn State and the Culture of Silence will never be confused for The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment. The latter goes even further than Gladwell, arguing that Sandusky may very well be innocent, and that the same “repressed memory therapy” that spurred the fraudulent “Satanic Panic” in the 1980s played a huge role in the case—but he takes 400 pages to explore this argument, compared to Gladwell’s 35-page chapter.
The Penn State case is far from the only controversial topic Gladwell takes on in Talking With Strangers. In a chapter called “Transparency Case Study: The Fraternity Party,” he uses the 2015 case in which Stanford University student Brock Turner was convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault to examine the problem of alcohol abuse on college campuses.
This would be a dicey proposition by any measure: Turner’s assault of Chanel Miller (who was known at the time as “Emily Doe”; she revealed her real name earlier this month) made national headlines when Santa Clara County judge Aaron Persky ignored prosecutors’ recommendation of a six-year sentence and gave Turner six months in county jail (he ended up serving three) plus three years probation.
Perksy’s assertion that Turner’s lack of a criminal record and his upstanding character warranted a reduced sentence led to the judge’s 2018 recall. The case led to changes in California state law about the definition of rape and the mandatory minimum-sentencing for sexual assault of an unconscious or intoxicated person.
“The People vs. Brock Turner is a case about alcohol,” Gladwell writes. He then proceeds to walk a very fine line in defining what his argument is about (a salient point about a lack of education for young people concerning the dangers of blackout drinking) and what it is not (a denial of the seriousness of Turner’s crime).
Gladwell knows that with both the Sandusky and Turner cases, he’s venturing into territory that’s difficult to write—but also difficult to read.
“I have, after 30 years, an enormous amount of faith in my readers. I know who my readers are, and I know my readers read things carefully. Those chapters both require careful reading,” he says. “I am not blaming the victim in the Brock Turner case. I am making an argument about how we prevent these kinds of things in the future. That’s a subtle point, but I think people who listen to my podcast or read my books are totally fine with subtle points.”
Indeed, fans of Revisionist History will be familiar with other times Gladwell took on topics other writers might consider taboo; for instance, the Brown v. Board of Education episode “Miss Buchanan’s Period Of Adjustment” (possibly the best episode he’s produced), in which he attempted to lay out the problems black teachers faced in the wake of the landmark desegregation ruling, without undermining the importance of the decision itself.
Gladwell says he’s not so much drawn to controversial topics as he feels he should be taking them on at this point in his career.
“I would say that I feel I have an obligation to write about those kinds of things because I can. I’m now in a position—having been a journalist for a long time, and having established a reputation for myself and having a readership—to have the freedom to write about those things. I can take the blow,” he says.
“Sure, people will get upset, but it’s fine. I mean, I can handle that. A 25-year-old journalist starting out would be taking a real risk for their career if they were to approach some of these topics. I think when you’re an established journalist, you have an obligation to go where others can’t or don’t want to.”
The material Gladwell takes on in Talking to Strangers is not the only parallel to his podcast: The whole book is laid out like an episode of Revisionist History, or perhaps a whole season packed into one book. It starts out with one character—Sandra Bland, an African-American woman from Chicago who was the victim of a bizarre and frankly terrifying traffic stop by a white cop in Houston in 2015—and then threads through other stories before returning to Bland’s story and a fierce indictment of the policing system responsible for it. This is a classic setup for a Revisionist History episode—the aforementioned Brown v. Board of Education episode employed the same structure. And Talking to Strangers is so thoroughly character-driven that it, too, seems the result of a lesson Gladwell learned doing the podcast. Though Revisionist History is perhaps most famous for episodes like 2016’s “Blame Game,” which smashed popular misconceptions about the “unintended acceleration” recalls of Toyota vehicles in 2009, 2010
and 2011, I’ve always found the
best episodes to be the ones
solidly built around characters first, and Gladwell’s trademark data-analysis second.
The author says it’s no accident his latest book is so reminiscent of the podcast, and that Revisionist History has had a “profound impact” on the way he writes books.
“The podcast has been the dominant thing in my life now for four years,” Gladwell says, “and it’s the thing I’m most excited about. It’s been a way to kind of—not re-invent, that’s too strong a word, but learn a whole new skill, and think about storytelling in a whole new way. It absolutely influenced Talking to Strangers.”
The most definitive sign of that influence is the fact that instead of the traditional audiobook, in which he reads the text, he actually created—well, basically a podcast. It includes the audio from his interviews for the book, as well as archival tape that he discusses in the book, and music. And he’s more excited about it than the print version.
“It’s like a six-hour episode of Revisionist History,” he says. “This is an emotional book, and I feel like in some ways the audio book is better than the print book, because you get more. You hear Sandra Bland at the beginning talking about ‘my beautiful kings and queens,’ and she stays with you. And at the end, the whole thing, about the cop and the deposition, [State Trooper Brian] Encinia explaining himself, I have that tape. So you hear him, and it becomes really, really visceral and real.
“And then you’re hearing this Janelle Monae song; she wrote a song about all the police shootings where she names all the victims. So it’s a whole overwhelming experience when you listen to it. I really encourage people to experience the book that way.”
Gladwell cites a number of examples in his new book about how misplaced confidence in our ability to read other people resulted in disastrous consequences. He discusses Neville Chamberlain’s famous failure to judge Adolf Hitler’s intentions, leading him to foolishly return from Munich waving a piece of paper Hitler had signed, and promising “peace in our time.” He examines how the CIA went for years believing they had faithful spies throughout Cuba, only to discover that every single one of them was a double agent working for Fidel Castro. He explains how truly astonishing the con job Bernie Madoff pulled on his victims really was—all because he managed to create a false aura of sincerity and good intentions. On the flipside, in one of the best chapters for explaining our inability to read the people around us, Gladwell deconstructs how Amanda Knox was convicted of murder not because she was guilty, but because she unintentionally acted guilty.
If all of this talk about perception and the length of time it takes to accurately parse information sounds a lot like Gladwell’s 2005 book Blink, that’s because it is. In fact, Talking to Strangers came out of Gladwell’s belief that Blink, a book about snap judgement, had been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted in the media.
“Blink was a fascinating and frustrating experience for me,” he says. “Because Blink was really a cautionary tale about our first impressions. It was a story that began with all the ways they work, and then the latter half of the book was about all the ways that we’re misled by our intuition. That didn’t quite come across.
“So this book first of all zeroes in on a particular kind of first impression, which is the relationship with a stranger. But I really wanted to squarely address what can go wrong, and the consequences of that—just as David and Goliath grew out of Outliers, this book grows out of Blink. With a lot of my books, I write it once, then I sit with it, then I come back and tackle the issue again.”
Ultimately, Talking to Strangers looks at the problem of how we misunderstand strangers from both a macro and micro perspective. It suggests the need for reform in our institutions— policing, the justice system and military-intelligence interrogation policies (the section on the biological reasons for the ineffectiveness of torture is a stunner)—and argues that action is needed to bring the systems of society in line with how our brains really work. But on another, individual level, it also suggests that the “default to truth” principle most of us use in everyday dealings with each other isn’t such a bad thing—even if it can be wrong. The alternative, he suggests, can be much worse.
“Let’s make sure that our institutions and practices conform to who we are,” says Gladwell. “But let’s accept ourselves for who we are, and stop pretending otherwise. We should stop beating ourselves up over our fundamental tendency to trust each other, and instead intelligently adapt to it.”