At least that’s the complaint in my bubble; I can’t speak for yours. The fractures of class and belief have inspired many well-meaning and systematic attempts to address them. The United States is host to a large “civil dialogue” movement, complete with membership organizations and inspirational tracts, devoted to helping us understand one another better. Gladwell has always seemed bored by politics—it’s one of his most appealing traits as a public figure—and in the new book, he wants to frog-jump our pettier divisions and take his readers back to the wellsprings of social relations, wellsprings that have been poisoned by a set of presumptions he wants us to correct. The sooner the better.
The frame for the book, appearing at the beginning and reprised at the end, is the story of Sandra Bland, who was pointlessly jailed after a routine traffic stop in Prairie View, Texas, in 2015. She committed suicide in her cell three days later. The conversation between the arresting officer and Bland, recorded on police radio, went viral on YouTube.
“Talking to Strangers,” the author writes, “is an attempt to understand what really happened” when the policeman pulled Bland over. On one level, of course, we already know what happened—we’ve got the police recording. Gladwell wants to go deeper. The tragedy of Sandra Bland is that she and the policeman were strangers to each other, unable to bridge a social divide. Usually, Gladwell writes, “we put aside these controversies after a decent interval and move on to other things.” But not him. “I don’t want to move on to other things.”
Then he moves on to other things: the first meeting between Cortés and Montezuma in the 16th century, Adolf Hitler’s snow job of Neville Chamberlain, a sneaky Cuban spy who embedded herself in the upper ranks of the Pentagon, Jerry Sandusky and his enablers, Bernie Madoff and his pigeons, the suicides of the poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and many more. Each of these unhappy episodes, Gladwell writes, was caused by the faulty “translation strategies” used by the men and women involved. “Talking to Strangers,” he says, “is about why we are so bad at that act of translation.”
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Like Lewis Carroll’s Walrus, then, Gladwell thinks the time has come to talk of many things. Too many, in fact. His millions of admiring readers often treat Gladwell’s books as the high-journalism version of Bond or Bourne movies, breakneck adventures that take us on a tour of exotic intellectual locales. He introduces us to historical oddities, revisionist interpretations of the past, the frontiers of social science, the backstories behind recent headlines, all strung together along a single provocative thesis.
In Talking to Strangers, however, the thesis never emerges. Instead he leads us into culs-de-sac that even so smooth a talker as Malcolm Gladwell can’t charm his way out of. The opening chapters of the book are devoted to what he calls two great “puzzles.” The first puzzle is, “Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face?” To illustrate the point, he describes the success of a large network of spies that Castro’s Cuba managed to establish throughout the Western world, fooling even the most battle-tested U.S. intelligence officers.