Saturday, August 10, 2019

Book Review: 'Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know' by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by [Gladwell, Malcolm]

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest foray into human folly is its seemingly innate trust in strangers. We assume strangers are transparent, and can take what they do and say at face value. Sometimes we are wrong, but assuming everyone is evil is far worse. Talking To Strangers focuses (mostly) on a number of very high profile criminal cases we are all likely to be familiar with. They include the Amanda Knox case, the Jerry Sandusky case, the Brock Turner case, the Sandra Bland case, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and the Bernie Madoff case.

Gladwell looks at them differently. He looks at them not from simple guilt or innocence, but from the misread signals that have surrounded them. The result can be a ruined life, prison or even death, unearned. On the other side (the investigator side), they can result in self-delusion, missed opportunities and complete wastes of time achieving nothing. It’s an imperfection he exploits repeatedly throughout the book.

It all hinges on the notion of transparency, what people assume about strangers just by looking at them. Judges make decision about bail, college students make decisions about having sex, investigators make assumptions about guilt – all just by looking and talking to strangers. Gladwell shows we do pretty poorly, especially compared to machines given raw data. Systems have a far better record of assigning or withholding bail, for example. Judges, even after decades of experience, fool themselves daily.

There is a side trip into coupling, where people fixate on something. In his chapter on the suicide of Sylvia Plath, he examines the role of town gas, saturated with carbon monoxide, which was the favorite method of suicide until it was phased out in favor of natural gas. As it disappeared, the suicide rate plunged. If people didn’t have their town gas, they didn’t kill themselves. They did not, as expected, look for alternatives. It was town gas, or nothing. Similarly, the Golden Gate Bridge is a favorite suicide tool, even though faster and easier methods are readily available.

Gladwell discovers that different cultures appreciate facial expressions differently. There are no real universals. He finds that people default to trusting others unless they know them already. Otherwise we would all be like television Vikings, constantly killing each other for lack of trust.

Talking To Strangers feels incomplete and unsatisfying. It’s no news to anyone that first impressions might not prove correct. It’s why it takes five to ten years for a marriage to break up, or months for a teenage relationship. How people we thought we knew could turn out to be evil on some level. We feel betrayed (but we betrayed ourselves). Suspension of disbelief (a term Gladwell does use at any point in the book) means we ignore the defects and faults we are presented with, and assume the best for this stranger. Later, those same faults become intolerable. But we know this.

Oddly, he does not examine American gun culture as substitute for this normal transparency and trust.

He discovers that alcohol doesn’t reveal, it transforms. There are good drunks and bad drunks, good trips and bad trips. The real you is not revealed by alcohol; you become a stranger to yourself. We drink so much more per session today that blackouts have become common and even measurable and predictable. Drink too much and your brain shuts down so you remember nothing. You leave yourself in the hands of a complete stranger – yourself. This is also not news.

Still and as usual, Gladwell is easy to read.  He packs his pages with these fascinating sidelights, and confirms much of what we have always suspected. Too trusting is being gullible. Non-trusting means a monster.

The most clear and chilling example he gives was the Ana Montes case, in which a Cuban intelligence mole worked her way up through the US security establishment with such great accomplishments and accolades that no one suspected her, despite the gigantic clues and traceable events. Leaks followed her everywhere. It was a case of suspension of disbelief as clear and dramatic as a teenager watching a terrible sci-fi flick. The CIA counterintelligence officer in charge, who finally outed her and stopped the hemorrhaging, kicks himself for not putting 2+2 together years earlier.

The best quote comes in the Khalid Sheik Mohammed case. Years of torture, both physical and psychological led Mohammed to finally confess. He confessed to pretty much everything in the world. The investigators began to think he was puffing himself up for posterity, knowing under no circumstances would he ever be set free. It made them (as so many have before them) rethink torture: “Trying to get information out of someone you are sleep-depriving is sort of like trying to get a better signal out of a radio that you are smashing with a sledgehammer.…It makes no sense to me at all.” But we carry on, regardless.  

Gladwell has great command of his thoughts. He handles his subject with comfort and ease. He will take you down strange paths and bring you back when he’s ready. And not before. So while it might be incomplete, it is engaging and entertaining.

In the end, Gladwell has so immersed himself in the Sandra Bland case and the psychology and tactics at every level, that he can explain it way beyond simply a cop gone bad. He says according to the known science he has explained, the police should not have been making stops on that stretch of road, and not in broad daylight. That the directions of management to make as many stops as possible was wrong, as was the police manual on obtaining and maintaining control over suspects. Mostly, from the context of this book, the officer took all the clues he found – an out of state license, an aggravated driver, fast food wrappers on the floor, no other keys on the keychain, failure to put out a cigarette on command – as nefarious instead of ordinary. He was trained to do the opposite of what we all do innately: assume truth and transparency in a stranger. That drivers should not be suspects; they are simply strangers. While that might let the occasional bad guy get away, the pain for treating everybody as a suspect is the kind of thing that can stop human society in its tracks. Our fundamental baseline must lean toward assuming transparency and trust. It is a necessary illusion.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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