The Relevance of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Talking to Strangers’
Nathan Graber-Lipperman writes on Gladwell’s latest book — told through the lens of Sandra Bland’s death — and those pesky people we’re unacquainted with
For the last two weeks, NGL has recommended a pieces of art to consume from black creators, starting with the 2016 Oscar winner Moonlight and Kendrick Lamar’s studio album debut Section.80. This week, he writes on Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking to Strangers.
Before I dive into tonight’s newsletter, I just wanted to correct something from my last one. I wrote about AMC Theaters and their CEO not requiring patrons to wear masks in their theaters; a week ago, they went back on that sentiment. I had written that section before the updated news — sorry about that!
Alright, let’s get into Gladwell’s story-laden deep dive into the psyche of humans, the 2019 book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know.
After first picking it up about three months ago, I finally finished Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers several weeks ago.
In typical Gladwellian fashion, TTS weaves together a string of historical vignettes — from British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s interactions with Adolf Hitler to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal — to explore the interactions we as humans have with people we don’t know. And like I usually feel when I encounter Gladwell, the entire time I read the book, I couldn’t really tell if the thread the author spent so much energy weaving actually connected, or if I simply wasn’t enough of an “intellectual” to appreciate the work in its full capacity.
Regardless, there were certainly a lot of fascinating strings to pull from said thread. The book focuses on our miscommunication and assumptions we enact when we encounter strangers, introduced and concluded through the lens of a specific encounter gone wrong. And with the way in which George Floyd died on May 25, I can’t stop thinking about that specific encounter, the story of Sandra Bland.
Bland was arrested on July 10, 2015 by Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia. She was a young, African American women from the Chicago suburbs driving on her way to start a new job teaching at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas. When Encinia pulled her over for a minor traffic violation, things were calm until tensions escalated, leading to a very physical arrest and charges of assault for Bland.
Three days later, Bland was found dead in her jail cell, having hanged herself.
Throughout the book, Gladwell aims to convey three problems that arise when we talk to strangers, and how they relate to the death of Sandra Bland. These include default to truth, transparency, and coupling:
- The idea of default to truth is something that took me by surprise. Through telling stories of Cuban spies infiltrating the CIA, the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State, and the curmudgeonly analyst who caught Bernie Madoff, Gladwell says we think we want our leaders to be alert to every suspicion. We blame them when they mess up and default to truth, when the reality is much simpler: we like them better when they’re more open, welcoming, and loyal.
- The idea of transparency is a little more cut-and-dry. “When we don’t know someone…or don’t have the time to understand them properly,” Gladwell writes, “we believe we can make sense of them through their behavior and demeanor.” Judges do worse than computers in getting cases right because they believe they’re able to “read” defendants based on what they see up close. Sometimes, we have to accept that we won’t ever know the whole truth of strangers; nevertheless, we can avoid crisis and controversy by leading with caution and humility. (Author’s Note: One of my favorite parts of the book was part of this section, which focused on a case study of disgraced Stanford swimmer Brock Turner. As someone who’s currently in college, I found this analysis of party culture and alcohol’s effects on our decision-making really informative, even though it’s admittedly a very bleak topic. I highly recommend the book for this chapter alone.)
- The idea of coupling is, quite possibly, the most important — and relevant — takeaway from this book. The behavior of strangers, says Gladwell, is intrinsically tied to place and context. However, this somehow still eludes us. For example, it took the city of San Francisco until 2019 to attach nets to the Golden Gate Bridge; even as countless studies showed this structural decision would drastically reduce the number of attempted suicide, citizens were indifferent, arguing that people would “find a way” anyway.
I decided to recommend Talking to Strangers here because of coupling and the context it offers into modern-day policing. Without really going into my thoughts on the rally to reallocate funds away from police departments (we should), given everything going on right now, I think historical context for understanding why our police officers do what they do is really important.
To conclude the book, Gladwell looks at the Kansas City experiment in the early ’90s. At the time, KC was one of the most violent and dangerous cities in the country, so police brought in help from an esteemed young criminologist named Lawrence Sherman.
The breakthrough came when Sherman realized the department needed to focus on guns, finding them and preventing crimes before they could happen. To test this hypothesis, he chose Patrol District 144, 0.64-square-mile neighborhood that had a homicide rate twenty times the national average.
After Sherman’s first two ideas failed, he employed a last-ditch, third attempt. A quirk in the Fourth Amendment allowed police officers to stop motorists for basic violations, which they could then take advantage of if they believed the driver to be suspicious. Sherman instructed four officers in two cars to patrol District 144 for 200 consecutive days while keeping policing in the rest of Kansas City the same.
The result? Crime remained as bad as ever in those other districts. But in 144, shootings, murders, and woundings were cut in half.
Police who were previously distraught now felt empowered. “Officers who recovered a firearm received favorable notoriety from their peers, almost to the point that recovery of a firearm came to be a measure of success,” one account surmised. “Officers could frequently be heard making statements such as ‘I’ve just got to get a gun tonight,’ or ‘I haven’t gotten a gun yet; tonight will be the night!’”
Departments across the country bombarded Sherman with phone calls, and eventually, they all followed suit with the Kansas City model. Gladwell points out an example of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, which went from 400,000 to 800,000 traffic stops a year in the space of seven years. Nowadays, police officers make twenty million traffic stops a year…or 55,000 a day.
The problem, though, was that something was lost in replicating the miracle from District 144. Sherman succeeded in honing in on the concentrated hot spots — the ones where citizens were afraid of leaving their homes due to violence — because of the idea of coupling. Focusing resources in these spots proved to be highly effective, but you couldn’t just scale them to a wholesale level (as seen in North Carolina) and expect success.
Plus — similar to the example of the Golden Gate Bridge — crimes doesn’t just move around the corner. Sherman found that people could be dissuaded from committing crimes when they were no longer able to operate on the same block; however, when he tried bringing this information to police departments across the country, officers would rebuke it and point to qualitative experience.
The way in which Gladwell ties this into the death of Sandra Bland is downright fascinating and highly relevant to the conversations we’re having since the murder of George Floyd. I’ll stop here because I don’t want to spoil the entirety of the book for you, even if it’s weird to think about “spoiling” a nonfiction book that talks about real-life events that have transpired.
Regardless, even if Talking to Strangers twists and turns a littttllllleee bit much for most people’s liking, I think it’s a worthwhile read for something that I find is often lost in the world today: context.
Yes, you can count me as a former skeptic of Gladwell’s style. But the dude simply knows how to tell stories, and I appreciate the lens he ponders everything through, a mixture of history and psychology. He doesn’t shy away from telling us how much energy he’s spent thinking about the subject of the book, either — he’s watched the bodycam footage of the encounter between Bland and Encinia hundreds of times, and every time, he’s just as furious and disappointed.
To conclude, is Talking to Strangers Peak Gladwell? Probably not. But I found it to be informative, important, and interesting, the kind of big longform story I could see myself writing, except this one trades hyperlinks for chapters.
And at the end of the day, that’s what I want from a book when I sit down to read, excited to learn.