Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Gladwell’s Newest Book : Title Doesn’t Match Text

I’m deflated. I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, Talking to Strangers. And, the book — at least for me — misses the mark. And, I am a fan. A real fan of his earlier works which I cite with frequency. Now I’m disappointed.

Start with this observation. We expect titles to books to, more or less, reflect what a book is about. Title’s message, at least they should. But, in Gladwell’s newest book, only parts of the book are about talking to strangers (the book’s title) and those are the best parts.

The titled topic — stranger engagement — is critical topic as we will see momentarily. But, after starting with this issue, the book veers off and is actually talking about trust and truth and how we misperceive and misconstrue the actions of those whom we know — not strangers. He spends considerable time on examples that don’t fit the “stranger” model, unless we redefine stranger as including people we know but don’t actually know or assume the title was written well before the book was completed and reflected the book’s initial pages and ending.

Or perhaps folks in publishing or his agent thought the title was catchy and would generate book sales.

Here’s what I perceive reading the book:

Gladwell observes that we have erroneous responses to the strangers that we meet and that leads to all sorts of misunderstandings and in the case of Sandra Bland, death. We get cues and we have assumptions and training and context and despite all that, we often “don’t get” strangers. Our reading of them and their motives is plain off some of the time. The problem is we don’t know when we are right and when we are wrong. We can’t tell.

We see some strangers as bad when they are good and some strangers as good when they are bad. And we see some people in a way that is accurate — whether they are good or bad. We also meet some people and we assume they are truthful; we meet other people and we assume they cannot be trusted. Take spies. We miss catching spies because we don’t recognize them.

And I am not talking about identifying psychopaths where even experts have trouble.

So far, so good. There is a rich literature on our immediate responses to strangers, our capacity to make snap judgments that can be right or wrong. There are studies showing that we have, even without awareness, built in prejudices related to race, gender, ethnicity, body language and facial expressions. Even smell. That is true even if we state overtly that we are without prejudice or predispositions of any sort. We get all messed up and rather than ask about who someone is, we often assume and go with our gut feel.

This reliance on our bad track record for judging strangers has consequences. As an educator, I think teachers/professor do this all the time. We assume, just looking at some students, that they are going to succeed or fail; they will easy or hard to manage in a classroom; they will be engaged or disengaged. Sometimes we are spot on; at other times, we are not spot on but then we need to shed our misperceptions. There is a reason we talk about the importance of first impressions; they last even if the truth doesn’t match down the road. If a teacher thinks you will do well, you may well get a better grade on that first essay. And, once you get the first good grade…..

But, Gladwell’s book then goes off on a set of examples related to why we can’t or don’t report negatives or aberrational behavior of people we know — — NOT strangers. For example, he uses the non-reporting of abuse related to Jerry Sandusky. We see people as we have seen them in the past; we trust them and we aren’t able to separate out the previous perceptions from the current reality, even something as blatant as his showering naked with a young person.

Jeffrey Epstein is another example. So is Bernie Madoff. People who knew them just couldn’t see what was really happening or they saw it and discounted it because of friendships and perceptions. We see people as we saw them initially and we hold on to that truth. Strangers actually saw the Madoff Ponzi scheme when others (including those expertise in finance and financial scams) did not.

This is another real problem but it is NOT a problem of talking to strangers; it is a problem related to talking to and learning about and perceiving NON-strangers. Many of us have wondered how come people couldn’t see what was right before their eyes; think about cheating spouses or lying children or relatives who steal. And we know that whistleblowers struggle to report.

Then Gladwell takes a fascinating detour on the effects of interrogation on perception and shows two drawings on a sample image, one before and one after interrogation. Yes, stressing our brain has profound effects; ask anyone who has experienced trauma, and one does not need to be a Navy Seal to struggle with the impact of trauma on our perceptions of our world — of ourselves and of others. There are many stories of returning soldiers who mistake members of their family for the enemy or grab guns in situations that don’t merit such action.

In the last part of the book, Gladwell returns to Sandra Bland and goes over piece by piece, word by word, the conversation she had with her arresting officer, Brian Encinia. It becomes obvious that the officer and the occupant of the car being stopped were on totally different pages. And, if you look at their pasts — the context for their conversation — as well as their lack of ability to deescalate, one can understand (not like) what happened. It was a conversation between strangers (one in power and one not) that went off the proverbial rails.

I suspect that happens too frequently. We have misunderstandings because we don’t contextualize — in part because we don’t know context. I make this observation frequently in the context of students. We don’t know them; we are often punishing them for the wrong reasons. Something happened to them and they reacted; it is not that the student him or herself is bad. And, there’s a lesson there: be aware of mismatches and false perceptions when meeting people for the first time and always, always, always consider context. Tone, pitch and asking questions calmly are all good things to consider.

Now, having just finished a book manuscript for Columbia Teachers College Press for my new book on trauma and education, I have been giving a fair amount of thought to books, their titles, their content, their length, their cohesiveness. With my book, I had to struggle to squeeze in all I wanted to address and with the help of an editor (who is amazing), I reduced the length of the book from over 95,000 words to just under 80,000 words — and I can say that while some things are left out, I am happy with what is there. We squeezed lots of content into the sausage — meat not filler. Meaty but readable and accessible.

Sadly, as I reflect on Gladwell’s book, I have an opposite reaction. It seems like the sausage has too much filler and the fillers are the stories not directly related to talking to strangers. Perhaps he should have changed the title to his book. Perhaps he needed a broader thesis to explain all the examples and far be it for me to provide that theme. But, the Gladwellian formula— simple truths we often don’t see — didn’t come across here, at least to me. Maybe I just didn’t see the linkages he was sharing. Maybe we make strangers out of people we know.

This I do know: we can and should think hard about the assumptions we make and conclusions we draw when talking to strangers. Doctors, educators, investors and hosts of others can learn from some of Gladwell’s new book.

In short and in sum, those we know aren’t strangers in the same way people we meet for the first time are. When we find out that our priest is a pedophile, that is not because he is a stranger; we’ve known him for years. When Larry Nassar abuses hundreds of young gymnasts, it is not because he is a stranger; the athletes have known him for years. The problem is that the person we thought we knew is not in sync with the realities of this person in other contexts. There’s a lesson there too but make no mistake about this: Nassar and Epstein and Madoff and Sandusky were not strangers to those who misjudged them.

Lesson: we misjudge strangers and we misjudge those we know. We default to trust. Assessing people — and their goodness, badness and truthfulness — is not a human strong suit apparently. Or, at least it is not a consistent suit on which we can rely. But, having trust in most people seems like a good thing for us as individuals and society. Bad apples exist but the whole barrel isn’t filled with them.

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Karen Gross

Karen Gross

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor