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Malcolm Gladwell. Photo/Getty Images

Malcolm Gladwell on the hazards of misreading others

With his eye for an outlier, Malcolm Gladwell explains why we are bound to misjudge one another in a new book, Talking to Strangers.

My imaginary dinner conversation with Malcolm Gladwell would be peppered with the interjection, “But, have you considered …” I’m sure the erudite and quick-thinking podcaster, journalist and author of several books on outliers would be swift to respond in a direct manner that anything is possible.

Because that’s a central theme to his latest work, Talking to Strangers. Its chapters take us through situations that remind us that, to some extent, we might all be strangers to each other and, even in the most critical situations, we are bound to misjudge one another.

Gladwell has a marriage counsellor’s interest in interpersonal misunderstandings and behavioural expectations that most of us experience every day. Arguing first that we instinctively believe what others tell us, but that we can be trained to reverse that tendency and suspect everyone in certain circumstances, Gladwell looks at real examples of extreme confusion: double-agents in the world of espionage, a sports coach with an obsessive interest in his young team members, and a foreigner accused of murder (impulsive outsider Amanda Knox). These misinterpretations are more than merely corrosive; they can be severe and punishing.

His trigger is the case of Sandra Bland, an apparently well-balanced African-American who was stopped by a white Texan cop while driving from her Chicago home to a new job near Houston. This interaction didn’t go well, and Bland was jailed. Three days later, while still in custody, she killed herself. The cop, Brian Encinia, was fired.

It turns out Bland was not as mentally stable as Gladwell had initially portrayed her. And Encinia was simply following a flawed police procedure that was intended to flush out criminal activity through spot checks. These two factors are incendiary for both parties and fatal for Bland. It’s a classic “misunderstanding”.

To get us to the story’s conclusion, Gladwell takes us on a roller-coaster ride of misreadings, retracts claims from his much-acclaimed work Blink, and flirts with some touchy sociopolitical issues. It is, for example, interesting to compare his perspective on the 2015 Stanford University rape of “Emily Doe” with the view of the woman involved, Chanel Miller (who allowed her name to become public last month, ahead of the release of her memoir, Know My Name). In a recent Guardian interview, she said she felt Gladwell has intellectualised and normalised her suffering by excusing matters of knowledge and consent when alcohol is a factor.

As entertaining and as erudite as he appears in this work, Gladwell is no Roland Barthes or Umberto Eco. He chooses salacious and dramatic stories to engage us, but not in a manner that gives his much more profound topic the gravitas it warrants. And sometimes he simply gets it wrong.

TALKING TO STRANGERS, by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane, $40)

This article was first published in the November 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.