Malcom Gladwell on reading people

Unlike in his previous works, however, the places Gladwell goes in his Talking to Strangers are foreboding and dark

CONVICTED CHILD molester Jerry Sandusky (center), a coach at Penn State University, arrives at a Pennsylvania courthouse in 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
CONVICTED CHILD molester Jerry Sandusky (center), a coach at Penn State University, arrives at a Pennsylvania courthouse in 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Malcolm Gladwell and the genre he helped popularize have gained die-hard fans as well as scathing critics. Such works identify patterns of human behavior that are illustrated through analyses of seemingly unrelated phenomena from history, science and popular culture. The better the storyteller – and the more obscure the data – the better the book. 

Gladwell has been out of the book-length game for some time (his last book was 2013’s David and Goliath), but he still has an uncanny knack for finding patterns in obscure places. Unlike in his previous works, however, the places Gladwell goes in his Talking to Strangers are foreboding and dark. (Indeed, Gladwell himself admitted as much in a profile in The New York Times this past August.)

Talking to Strangers explores the challenges of how we assess people we don’t know well. To do so, Gladwell connects such diverse topics as the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation techniques, the 1960s introduction of natural gas into British homes, and the facial expressions of actors on the television show Friends – along with more obvious examples such as serial child molesters Dr. Larry Nassar and Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. In many of these instances, writes Gladwell, “The parties involved relied on a set of strategies to translate another’s world and intentions. And in each case, something went very wrong.” 

We erringly think that we can assess other people based on what we see, yet we often dupe ourselves, thinking we know what we do not know. Gladwell cites the parents of Nassar’s patients, who were often present in the examination room when Nassar abused their daughters; the SEC investigators of Bernie Madoff, who could not see past his confident demeanor; and even prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who personally met with Adolf Hitler in September 1938 to assess Hitler’s intentions. Chamberlain left convinced that Hitler’s word was inviolate, after which Hitler promptly broke all his promises, invading Czechoslovakia and Poland within months.

We assume “transparency” from others, Gladwell explains. People generally think that what a person thinks and feels will be reflected in their behavior and body language. While that may be a necessary assumption for us to navigate a world full of strangers, most people’s demeanor does not provide “an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.” 

Gladwell notes that we all “default to truth,” assuming that what people say is actually what they mean. “We start by believing,” he writes, “and we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.” 

We “default to truth,” Gladwell adds, “even when that decision carries terrible risks – because we have no choice. Society cannot function otherwise.” Indeed, some people see through the facade of a charlatan, people whom Gladwell calls “holy fools,” people like Harry Markolplos, an investigator who had red-flagged Bernie Madoff to the SEC in 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2008 –  and was rebuffed each time. Markopolos did not “default to truth,” and if everyone on Wall Street behaved like this, Gladwell points out, “there would be no fraud on Wall Street – but the air would be so think with suspicion and paranoia that there would also be no Wall Street.” 

One reason people are quick to judge others is because we assume that other people are two-dimensional and easy to “read.” We would never assume simple readings of ourselves, notes Gladwell. “We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy.” 

Our ability to accurately read a stranger becomes even weaker when alcohol becomes part of the equation. Gladwell points out that heavy drinking is often part of certain crimes, and that “heavy drinking” in 2020 is much heavier than it was 50 years ago. Heavy binge drinking today “includes people who have had 20 drinks in a sitting,” as opposed to the four or five drinks of 1970s-era heavy drinkers. “Blackouts, once rare, have become common.” As difficult as it is to read a stranger under pristine conditions, explains
Gladwell, it becomes exponentially harder when key brain functions are impaired.

Gladwell does offer a few practical takeaways. For example, when a scandal breaks, we ought not to assume that those closest to the criminal are engaged in a cover-up or are protecting their own interests; they may simply have “defaulted to truth” and been fooled themselves. We should therefore not condemn those who have been “victimized” by a “default to truth.” Such victims, he writes, “deserve our sympathy, not our censure.” Gladwell reminds us that the truth about strangers “is not some hard and shiny object that can be extracted if only we dig deep enough and look hard enough.” Understanding a stranger has limits. 

Ultimately, Gladwell leaves the reader with a conundrum: Living in the modern world, we have no choice but to frequently talk to – and rely on – strangers . He recommends that we practice both “restraint and humility” in attempting to size up those strangers we meet. 

Malcolm Gladwell is a marvelous storyteller, and has a keen eye for seeing societal patterns, even if one does not agree with all of his conclusions. Books like Gladwell’s are important if only because they make us stop and take notice of our own behavior and that of others, and make us conscious of those habits we may have that hold us back. Talking to Strangers reminds us who we are and what we do. It is a welcome addition to the Gladwell library.

The writer is the head of school at the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, New York.