What are we to make of Malcolm Gladwell thanking his mother, in the acknowledgements to his latest book, Talking To Strangers, for teaching him to "write clearly and simply?" Maybe nothing.
After all, Gladwell's parents often turn up in his writing and Talking To Strangers opens with an endearing anecdote starring New York's Mercer Hotel, Gladwell's late father, Graham, and, quite possibly, a Hollywood celebrity.
On the other hand, maybe it is something-a pre-emptive strike targeting those who, in the past, have taken issue with Gladwell's efforts to reduce profoundly complex concepts to simple, easily digestible kernels of wisdom. Either way, as far as profoundly complex concepts go 'the stranger problem' is up there with the best of them. Or is it?
On the face of it, the stranger problem is no more complicated than it sounds, which is to say we get strangers wrong, often disastrously so. It begs mentioning here that Gladwell's "strangers" run the gamut from what we might call "complete strangers" to people we've met several times, people we work with and people know reasonably well, but let's not let that get in the way of the good stories, of which there are many here.
Hernn Cortés misunderstood Montezuma II and 20 million Aztecs perished, either at the hands of the Spanish or as a result of the diseases they brought with them. Chamberlain failed to grasp Hitler's true intentions and we all know how that ended.
Prosecutors in Perugia misread a quirky American college student and Amanda Knox spent four years in an Italian prison for the murder of Meredith Kercher. And so it goes. "Strangers are not easy," Gladwell tells us. Well, yes. But first, a "traffic stop gone awry".
Talking To Strangers is top-and-tailed by the case of Sandra Bland, the African-American woman pulled over by Trooper Brian Encinia in Prairie View, Texas in 2015 for failing to signal a lane change. Three days later Sandra Bland hung herself with a plastic bag in her jail cell.
Gladwell's book is "an attempt to understand what really happened by the side of the highway that day in rural Texas" because, in his opinion, the explanations offered at the time - racism on one hand, the minutiae of the case on the other - were deeply unsatisfying. Does it succeed? Let's come back to that. What it does do is entertain - Gladwellian emphasis all mine.
If spies, moles, crooked hedge-funders, serial sex offenders and other characters from the demi monde row your boat, you'll enjoy Talking To Strangers. There are plenty of them here and Gladwell's titbit style takes make for interesting if distracting reading. One of those titbits concerns Ana Belen Montes, a former Cuba expert at the Defence Intelligence Agency.
Gladwell draws heavily on the work of Tim Levine, a professor of communication studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, to try and better understand strangers.
Levine is especially interested in deception and his research has shown that people are astonishingly bad at detecting liars, even people who are paid to be good at it, like counterintelligence officers. Why? Truth-Default Theory. We tend to think people are telling the truth even when the evidence suggests otherwise.
In the case of Ana Montes, all the signs were pointing to her guilt when Scott Carmichael, a DIA counterintelligence officer, sat down to interview her following the shoot-down of two civilian aircraft by the Cuban Air Force in February 1996, but that didn't stop him explaining them away. Another five years would pass before Montes was revealed to be an agent of the Cuban government.
If you're wondering what any of that has to do with the stranger problem, you're not alone. More than once I had to remind myself where Gladwell was going with all this as I tried to follow his premise from Kansas City to Camp X-Ray and back again, his simple prose style notwithstanding.
And I'm not embarrassed to say that more than once I had no idea. I still don't, really.
One of Gladwell's main conclusions is that it would be wrong to stop trusting each other. He also says, "We need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth."
On the subject of Sandra Bland, Gladwell offers these parting words: "If we were more thoughtful as a society - if we were willing to engage in some soul-searching about how we approach and make sense of strangers - she would not have ended up dead in a Texas jail cell." No doubt. But is that it, Malcolm?
Talking To Strangers might make a good handbook for ill-bred cretins who bluster through life with no humility and little regard for others, but for the rest of us it isn't particularly helpful.
- T.J. Collins is a Sydney writer, essayist and critic.
- Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Penguin. $35.