It’s understandable if you think Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Talking to Strangers is a foray into the subtle art of conversation and bridge building in an increasingly fractured society. After all, the subtitle promises to clarify “what we should know about the people we don’t know,” and for readers familiar with Blink! and Outliers, such positive fare would be natural fit for Gladwell. But Talking to Strangers is a surprisingly darker book. Gladwell’s main focus is on underscoring the limits of our ability to make sense of strangers in the first place.
Coming almost six years after his last book David and Goliath, Gladwell can be forgiven for his more pessimistic tone. After all, the western world is a markedly different place where public trust is increasingly vulnerable and the sinister forces of racism and sexism have taken center stage. In fact, Talking to Strangers emerged from Gladwell’s own struggle to make sense of the 2015 arrest of Sandra Bland in Prairie View, Texas, after failing to signal a lane change—an arrest that eventually led to her death. While Gladwell hopes to understand what escalated the encounter between Bland and police, he also views the story paradigmatically, illustrative of the ways we misunderstand strangers in our increasingly polarized, fear-driven society.
In classic Gladwellian fashion, Talking to Strangers takes readers on an expansive and winding journey through history, psychology, and media headlines in an attempt to weave the threads of seemingly disparate histories. I say “attempts” because Gladwell often loses the thread, leaving readers tangled in conflicting advice about how to relate to those around them.
Gladwell begins by exploring the sociological necessity of “defaulting to truth.” In other words, we need to believe people (even strangers) are telling us the truth until evidence to the contrary becomes undeniable. Batting second is the concept of transparency, or the assumption that body language and facial expressions accurately convey and correspond to what a stranger is truly thinking and feeling. And third is the concept of “coupling,” or the recognition that human actions are strongly shaped by place and immediate context.
Gladwell argues that these three hidden forces—either by presence or absence—explain what happened that day in Texas. His point is not to blame police so much as argue for greater humility and trust in our dealings with strangers. “To assume the best of another is the trait that has created modern society,” he writes. “Those occasions when our trusting nature is violated are tragic. But the alternative—to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception—is worse.”
While Talking to Strangers unearths some of the hidden forces behind Sandra Bland’s arrest and by extension, other similar cases, it obscures the dynamics inherent in sex abuse cases. In so doing, the book itself becomes Exhibit A for how relying on our own judgment can lead us to disastrously misinterpret the actions of others.
In the section devoted to “defaulting to truth,” Gladwell uses two high-profile scandals to illustrate our human tendency to trust that people are telling us the truth: the Jerry Sandusky case and the Larry Nassar case. Bringing his cool, analytical style to emotionally-charged conversations, Gladwell parses case files, courtroom testimonies, and eye witness accounts. Some readers may object to such detachment, but the problem with Gladwell’s treatment of these cases is not one of tone but of substance.
Whereas the rest of the book includes interviews and expert testimony, Gladwell does not include the perspective of sex abuse experts, opting to interpret and handle the public facts of these cases himself. Were we to hear from a sex abuse expert, however, we’d learn that the majority of abuse cases sit outside the bounds of Gladwell’s thesis: 90 percent of children who experience abuse know and trust their abuser. In other words, most abusers are not strangers, to either their victims or the communities around them.
A sex abuse expert would also tell us this startling insight: The reason we mishandle sex abuse cases is not because we default to truth or don’t know how to talk to strangers but because we default to truth with the wrong people, and also because we fail to follow investigative procedures that are meant to help us identify the victim and the abuser.
Gladwell suggests it was entirely natural and human for Penn State officials to “default to truth” when questions were raised about Sandusky. But he doesn’t explain why they did not default to the evidence right in front of them—or at the very least, establish protocol. Sandusky’s behavior had long been flagged as unusual. Friends and colleagues had even warned him to change some of his habits—like showering with young boys—lest it make him look like a predator.
In fact, when an eye witness saw in him such a situation, school officials took the ridiculous route of trying to themselves ascertain whether the encounter was sexual or not. Unbelievably, no one stopped long enough to recognize how profoundly abnormal it is for a grown man to be showering alone with a young boy in the first place. Had Sandusky actually been a stranger, administrators would have defaulted to the truth that he looked and acted like a pedophile because he was one.
While Gladwell may be right that we need a basic level of trust with strangers in order to function as a society, he misses the extent to which sex abuse is an entirely different conversation because of the proximity of abusers to their victims. Such a misstep is so glaring that I initially wondered if I’d misread him. But near the end of the book, he returns to abuse cases to argue for greater trust as a society:
We could start by no longer penalizing each other for defaulting to truth. If you are a parent whose child was abused by a stranger [emphasis mine]—even if you were in the room—that does not make you a bad parent. And if you are a university president, and you do not jump to the worst case scenario when given a murky report about one of your employees, that doesn’t make you a criminal. To assume the best of another is the trait that has created modern society. Those occasions when our trusting nature is violated are tragic. But the alternative—to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception—is worse.
But is the choice really so binary? Is the choice really between abandoning public trust and improving our ability to prevent and respond to sexual abuse? It is, in fact, ignorance about how abusers manipulate established trust that leads us to misjudge and fail to act. It is ignorance about the nature of abuse, not our inability to read strangers well, that leads us to arrogantly rely on our own judgment when allegations surface.
The answer, then, rests not in becoming either more or less trusting of other people or more or less trusting of ourselves. Both of these place the locus of truth within the individual. No, instead of simply assuming the best or trusting our guts, we must move the locus of judgment toward external, objective facts, established protocols like mandatory reporting, and the guidance of experts.
As believers, we also move the locus of judgment to God’s righteous goodness.
Scripture speaks a lot about interacting with strangers, arguing for an openness and compassion toward them. Whether it’s the story of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) or Old Testament commands to welcome the stranger (Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19), the Bible consistently calls us away from fear-based isolationism. But it also speaks a lot about learning to make wise decisions and exercising discernment in a broken world—one where both stranger and family member has the potential to harm us.
Perhaps this is why Jesus himself calls us as his disciples to be both “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). As Gladwell suggests, we must not ricochet into cynicism. We must not become hawkish or abandon common trust. At the same time, however, we cannot collectively shrug our shoulders when we are walking among wolves. In a world as dangerous as ours, we must learn to judge righteously and base our judgments on shared facts rather than private feelings. We must learn to recognize the ways in which our personal relationships can blind us to reality. And we must learn to judge impartially, not on social status, power, or wealth.
In this respect, books like Talking to Strangers are helpful in illuminating our hidden motives and giving us greater clarity on our epistemological limits. As Gladwell himself writes, the only way forward is by accepting that “the stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that. The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.”
But ironically enough, practicing caution and humility with strangers means understanding the limits of our ability to correctly understand a situation by ourselves—whether we are a police officer at a traffic stop, a leader wrestling with an allegation of abuse, or a writer writing a book about the topic. Embracing humility means learning to rely on the expertise of others and testing our conclusions and perceptions by external measures.
Ultimately, humility means moving away from private interpretations of truth to a place where behaviors and actions are tested in the light of God’s own goodness and justice.
Hannah Anderson lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She is the author of Made for More and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul(Moody). You can find more of her writing at sometimesalight.com, hear her on the weekly podcast Persuasion, or follow her on Twitter @sometimesalight.