Malcolm Gladwell — a voice that resides at the fore of contemporary cultural analysis — has written five New York Times bestsellers, runs the podcast Revisionist History, and has been named on the TIME 100 Most Influential People list. His latest book “Talking to Strangers” analyzes the inherent misunderstandings when meeting new people, and how historical examples can help us combat these misunderstandings. Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers” supplies many eloquent, well-presented historical anecdotes. However, the examples Gladwell gives seem pitifully misused; they are reduced to practically obvious conclusions.
The introduction to the book premises the confusion that often ensues when strangers meet, by providing the important example of the July 2015 arrest of Sandra Bland. Bland was pulled over by a Texas state trooper for failing to signal a lane change. She was arrested for supposedly not acting in accordance with a lawful order the trooper gave, and died by suicide in her prison cell a few days later. It is a harrowing introduction and strikingly sets up Gladwell’s theories on the interactions of strangers. However, Gladwell’s grave tone, both in the introduction and the final chapter about Bland’s interactions with the state trooper, is not consistent throughout the book.
Immediately after the introduction, Gladwell jumps into a series of historical examples. He begins with the sixteenth-century meeting of the “Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés” and “the Aztec ruler Montezuma II.” Gladwell continues forward a few centuries to tell the tale of a Cuban spy infiltrating American intelligence during the Cold War.
After that, Gladwell goes back in time to talk about British leaders who met, and drastically misunderstood, Adolf Hitler. Gladwell proceeds decades forward to the present day to analyze the way a New York City judge makes decisions regarding the people brought before him in court. Part One ends with the sentence, “If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let it be this: Strangers are not easy.”
Gladwell’s historical examples in “Talking to Strangers” are interesting, in fact very much so, but they don’t amount to significant enough conclusions. Each one is well-researched and analyzed. However, many parts of the book are long-winded. For instance, looking exclusively at the first 50 pages, does it genuinely take anecdotes about Montezuma, Cold War espionage, Hitler and New York courts to make the point that “strangers are not easy?”
In addition to taking long routes to somewhat apparent conclusions, Gladwell’s tone is at times disjointed; he takes casual examples and applies them to much more complex, grave situations.
In chapter six, titled The “Friends” Fallacy, Gladwell writes of facial analysis applied to an episode of the television show “Friends.” The way Gladwell discusses his research, centered around contacting psychologist Jennifer Fugate and exploring her research in Facial Action Coding System, is compelling and relevant — especially if you like “Friends.”
Gladwell first breaks down the “Friends” episode through Fugate’s research, then disproves it as faulty due to how you can’t actually depend on facial analysis to accurately understand people and situations. Gladwell then launches into more evidence, this time work done by anthropologists in Papua New Guinea; their evidence further proves Gladwell’s point. But, again, this somewhat simple idea — that people often misunderstand people whom they have never met — could likely be explained without multiple, lengthy examples.
The interactions between strangers that is set up to be the focus of the book--Bland’s arrest--was, and still is, an interaction that is analyzed primarily due to the racial implications it has.This event has been largely publicized and understood to align with the American reality of how law enforcement brutalizes African Americans. But Gladwell hardly mentions these racial dynamics to a shocking degree.
One of few mentionings of race in the entire book — which, again, begins and ends with Bland’s arrest which Gladwell does “not want to move on” from — is a footnote in the final chapter that states how “African Americas are considerably more likely to be subjected to traffic stops than white Americans.” This failure on Gladwell’s part is baffling. Gladwell cannot get Sandra Bland’s arrest and subsequent death out of his head, but he writes more about British leaders meeting Hitler, “Friends” episodes and remote peoples in New Guinea in relation to Bland’s arrest than race?