Gladwell tackles assumptions about others in “Talking to Strangers”

Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company


By Sean Armstrong | Staff Writer 

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know is perhaps the author’s most timely and important work to date.

Throughout the work, Gladwell examines famous case studies like the Amanda Knox trial, when Hernan Cortez conquered the Aztecs and when Neville Chamberlain met Hitler through the lens of psychology. He aims to explain how all of those events went horribly awry.

He conducts his argument in the way that a philosopher or European social scientist would, in a very un-American way. The book uses case studies to depict specific aspects of psychological theory, leading up to the grand finale. This is where the puzzle pieces that were given to the reader in each chapter come together in the final case.

In this way, Gladwell is creating context and allegorical stories, not unlike those created by Plato in “The Republic,” such as the cave, so that the reader can quickly remember the key points of the narrative he wishes to get across.

Already, his execution stands out as being reader-centric. His past books have focused on case studies, but over the years he has gotten clearer with the puzzle pieces he wants the reader to pick up along their reading journey. This book is a testament to the clearer puzzles he uses because there are practical, everyday lessons that even college students can use right now.

The three cases most applicable to Duquesne students have to do with the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the Brock Turner case and the police stop of Sandra Bland.

Every college student in this state knows the details of the Sandusky case since it filled our screens for a large part of middle and high school, but we actually do not. Truth-default theory, as conceptualized by Timothy R. Levine at the University of Alabama, is why we do not understand the case as well as we may believe.

When asked to weigh two possibilities, our ideas about our friend or the claims of a stranger, unsurprisingly we often choose our friend. Gladwell takes this idea deeper by explaining that the real dilemma here is to accept a scenario we find ludicrous: Jerry Sandusky, the pillar of the community, kid-loving, boundary pusher is a child predator, or the multitude of people who accused him, but understandably due to trauma, have fuzzy recollections of what exactly went on are lying or confused, either way making them unreliable accounts.

Personally, while I do not disagree with the ultimatums Gladwell sets out, I do think an even more interesting topic of discussion is why do we almost always believe strangers are less reliable than our friends? Think about it; the first thing that happens when anyone is accused of sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era is that people try to undermine the accuser’s credibility. With many of the victims in the Sandusky scandal, the question of how reliable these kids are was consistent.

I think that the assumptions made about accusers reliability has much more to do with people feeling uncomfortable than it has to do with truth-default theory, but I do not want to discredit truth-default theory either. I just think there is more to be debated, but for the purposes of outlining truth-default theory in the larger argument of this book, I can see why Gladwell does not dive deeper on this case study.

The second case involving Turner is the most applicable to college students. Emily Doe, as she is referred to in court documents, was unconscious. Almost everyone knows the case and the controversy surrounding it. Turner’s swim times were listed in a news piece about his trial, he got off with what some would call a slap on the wrists.

This is not a case about victim-blaming for alcohol consumption, but this is a case about how society thinks about alcohol and what society teaches to prevent sexual assaults. Alcohol is typically viewed as a neuroinhibitor in that it prevents people from stopping their more impulsive drives. While this is not inaccurate according to various neuroscience findings, a better term for understanding the effects of alcohol would be myopia, according to Gladwell.

Myopia is defined by the Oxford dictionary as a “lack of imagination, foresight or intellectual insight.” What this means is that alcohol pulls people into the moment with no understanding of future consequences or past education. People are left with what is in front of them and their own impulses, desires and default beliefs.

My conclusions from this chapter were that teaching people the idea of consent through an analogy about tea is great for sober people, but not going to help someone who is intoxicated. Gladwell’s conclusions are that people need to fundamentally believe in the equality of the sexes and not leave their friends alone at a party like Doe and Turner were. If understanding how honest a person is did not work for the countless sober individuals at Penn State with years worth of knowledge to access, then a fraternity party may prove an even more difficult place to access strangers.

I agree wholeheartedly with Gladwell’s first conclusion that believing in equality is important, but while I think no good friend would ever leave someone at a party, alone and drunk, I think this kind of narrative places more blame on the victim than on the people at that party to ensure everyone is safe.

The final case, Sandra Bland, is how Gladwell opened and closed the book. This instance is a meditation on the importance of location. He began it by showing one of the most extreme examples of a meeting of strangers going wrong when an officer pulls Bland over for failing to signal a lane change and the interaction ends with Bland in handcuffs.

This case serves to demonstrate what the antithesis of defaulting to truth would look like should we consciously try to undermine our biological hardwiring. Bland had just moved from Illinois to Texas for a new job. The reason for her move had to do with debt from multiple traffic tickets and a history of mental health conditions from the loss of a baby including self-harm.

This move was a chance for things to start over for Bland, but on day one she is pulled over by an officer. Her failure to change lanes was because he was speeding up behind her and she was maneuvering to get out of his way. This makes Brian Encina seem like the villain in the story, but there is a systemic reason for why he did this.

Gladwell goes into years of criminology research to explain the historical reason for why Encina was trained to police this way, but the summation of his point is that police are trained to be too aggressive. Good officers are measured by how many people they pull over and can risk-access based on arbitrary observations like if there are new tires on an old car, where the license plate is from and if there are fast food wrappers in the car.

The only criticism of Gladwell’s analysis I have and this is a common criticism across all reviews of this book is, what about race? Gladwell seems to erase the idea of race in this final chapter as if to say it has no role in why Sandra Bland was pulled over.

While I do think race is too often separated from economics in American sociological studies and can help explain many of the systemic issues in a clearer way than the abstract allusions to Jim Crow-era laws, I do think race likely played a role as any of the statistics on police brutality or an auto-insurance company can tell you. Still, enacting the kind of change Gladwell suggests — making policing less aggressive — cannot hurt the situation. I see no harm in advocating for such a change, but I don’t know if Gladwell’s implied change is the panacea to the issue.

The culminating point of Gladwell’s book is that defaulting to truth is part of who we are and necessary for society to function. We should not try to circumvent that innate tendency, but rather try to understand the factors that are present when meeting a stranger and create systems that reflect that.

I do not agree with everything this book had to say, but I recognize that there is some truth to many of the points Gladwell makes about how we interact with strangers. I can only recommend that people read the book to grasp the multitude of things I could not include in this summary so that they can be more engaged strangers that are cognizant of the psychological factors influencing everyday interactions.

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