Reviewed in the United States on September 10, 2019
Let me start with what Malcolm Gladwell believes happened in the Sandra Bland case. During the 1970s, there was an experiment conducted in Kansas City, Missouri, which found that increased police patrols had no effect on crime. During the 1990s, a similar experiment, again conducted in Kansas City, instead targeted extra police patrols in very specific high-crime areas - and by very specific I mean city blocks, not streets, blocks. That experiment was incredibly effective and demonstrated that stopping individuals for very minor traffic infractions led to an increase in arrests, gun seizures, drug seizures, and, most importantly, crime.
Law enforcement agencies around the country took notice; sadly, they walked away with the wrong lesson. The officer who stopped Sandra Bland that fateful day had been trained to stop potentially suspicious individuals for very little reason. He was further trained to look for evidence of guilt rather than assuming anyone was just going about their business. Why? Because law enforcement agencies extrapolated and thought that what worked well in a very specific high-crime area would also work everywhere else. That just wasn’t the case. It led to an overly suspicious police force and, of course, the general populace growing increasing wary of encountering police. It also unfortunately disproportionately impacted African Americans and ultimately led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
I am a HUGE fan of Malcolm Gladwell's work. He singlehandedly taught me to appreciate nonfiction. His books are both informative and entertaining, educational but really enjoyable to read. Outliers in particular has stuck with me. I also enjoyed his other books, not counting What the Dog Saw, which was a bit different from the others.
In any case, I have been looking forward to Talking to Strangers since I first heard of its upcoming release. It does not disappoint. I have a master's degree in anthropology, so Gladwell's own description of Talking to Strangers spoke to me immediately. After listing high-profile examples including Sandra Bland, Brock Turner, and Amanda Knox, Gladwell says: “In all of these cases, the parties involved relied on a set of strategies to translate one another's words and intentions. And in each case, something went very wrong. In Talking to Strangers, I want to understand those strategies—analyze them, critique them, figure out where they came from, find out how to fix them.”
Largely using high-profile cases with which readers will be familiar, Malcolm Gladwell wants to teach us how to communicate better with those who are different. He presents us with two puzzles:
First, why can't we tell when the stranger is front of us is lying to our face? (ANSWER: Because we default to truth. Society could not function otherwise. There don't just need to be red flags for us to recognize deception - there need to be an overwhelming number of them.)
Second, how is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them? (ANSWER: Because we assume transparency, meaning we assume we can read their intentions on their faces and through their actions. It turns out, we can't. We're really bad at it.)
“We have people struggling with their first impressions of a stranger. We have people struggling when they have months to understand a stranger. We have people struggling when they meet with someone only once, and people struggling when they return to the stranger again and again. They struggle with assessing a stranger's honesty. They struggle with a stranger's character. They struggle with a stranger's intent.
“It's a mess.”
It is this mess which Malcolm Gladwell hopes to make more comprehensible.
As always, well written and highly readable. But I am dissatisfied with the conclusion. How do we best talk to strangers? "What is required of us is restraint and humility." Sure. We need to acknowledge that strangers are complex and that we have no clue whether they are telling the truth or lying and that we certainly can not read their intentions from their facial expressions or actions. That's the humility part. The restraint part is recognizing all of that and not assuming we have a clue. But what Gladwell fails to do is actually give us a template of how to talk to strangers.
Talking to people is confusing; the older I get, the more I recognize that. I have long since gotten that defaulting to truth can be problematic but assuming that everyone else is lying is worse. I don't have to look any further than neurodiversity to grasp that someone who fidgets or avoids eye contact may not be guilty of anything other than a diagnosis that is unknown to me. While this book was enlightening and informative on a large scale, on the minor scale that is my life, it did not teach me anything I did not already know in my quest to talk to strangers - and that is disappointing. I remain as bewildered as always by the other. And, I suppose, recognizing that already puts me ahead of the game.
EDIT: I have continued mulling over this book, and one thing puzzles me. Gladwell says repeatedly in the first half of the book that the correct course of action is to assume others are telling the truth because lies are rare. But liars are not rare! As he demonstrated with the quiz experiment, when given the opportunity 30% of people cheated - and then lied about it! I suppose you could assume lies are rare if you also assume that most liars don't lie all the time. I prefer the maxim "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."