Malcolm Gladwell has at this point created a distinctive style of non-fiction. Social science research is combined with various narratives and then woven into a meta-narrative about something of widespread interest.
That “formula” is more or less followed in Talking with Strangers. However, with more success and experience Gladwell is less focused on simply saying something interesting and more focused on effecting reform in society. And, as with any person with a message for change in America, he takes positions that are bound to be uncomfortable and controversial.
The phenomenon at the center of Talking with Strangers is that, uniquely in modernity, we no longer live in a village or tribe where we know most of the people we interact with. Based on solid psychology, Gladwell explains that most humans have a default reaction to trust strangers. When we don’t we rely on what Gladwell refers to as transparency—the idea that one’s inner self is revealed by facial gestures or body movements.
Compellingly, Gladwell describes that people who don’t trust strangers are not necessarily the model we want to follow. The same man who acted as a whistleblower against Bernie Madoff also holed up in his house fearing a government assassination. If we don’t default to trust we end up in a society few would desire.
Along the way Gladwell builds his case for sensible ways to navigate the stranger filled world by citing cases as diverse as Amanda Knox and Jerry Sandusky. Some of the stances on controversial cases are going to offend some readers, but there’s really no way to discuss topics like child abuse and date rape without offending someone.
By no means does the reader have to agree with all that Gladwell says. However, his ability to build evidence leading towards a persuasive conclusion on how we should act towards with one another is a good example of how popular science should be conducted. You can disagree that aggressive policing is being applied incorrectly or that alcohol consumption is a key factor in the rise of date rapes. But then you have to criticize Gladwell’s ideas and evidence. While he’s not writing a peer-reviewed paper, the ideas in this book are amenable to scientific criticism.
I actually liked this book the most of anything Gladwell has written. Too many of his earlier books seemed written to pique one’s interest while having little real impact. Even if you find him offensive, self-righteous or just plain wrong you can’t deny he has something important to convey. Hopefully, Gladwell will continue to turn from focusing on the merely piquant to the central issues of the day.