- The Good: Rich tapestry of stories about being duped and not trusting when we should
- The Bad: Underlying concept and examples don’t quite gel
- The Literary: Podcast-style audiobook is very engaging
Why do our interactions with strangers often go so wrong? In this podcast-ish audiobook production, Gladwell’s narration is paired with interviews of scientists, criminologists, and psychologists, and with reenactments of courtroom transcripts and the Sandra Bland arrest in Prairie View, Texas. Gladwell argues that some of the tools and strategies we use to protect ourselves when we talk to strangers invite conflict and misunderstanding.
One of the great things about Gladwell is his ability to pull examples from a wide range of topics that weave together into an interesting tapestry of a story. The book opens and closes with Sandra Bland, with the hope that all the chapters in between help explain what happened the day a woman was arrested for a failure to signal, who then committed suicide in her jail cell three days later.
The supporting middle chapters are all quite interesting on their own, and my favorites center around how we so often get tricked by other people. Fidel Castro and his operatives fooled the CIA for years. Neville Chamberlain trusted Adolf Hitler. Bernie Madoff amassed tens of billions of dollars in one of the largest Ponzi schemes of all time. His hypothesis? We are fooled by con-artists because we default to truth. We naturally trust people.
We also have a tendency to not trust people if their insides do not seem to match their outsides. Truth-telling appears to be lying if behavioral signals are mismatched. We condemn innocent people like Amanda Knox because she didn’t conform to what we thought someone in her position should do or say. Police officers don’t trust innocent people like Sandra Bland who fidget in their car when pulled over.
Still, some chapters seem to be a bit of a stretch for the book’s theme, particularly the ones that focus on Brock Turner and Sylvia Plath. Brock Turner was a Stanford student who raped a girl at a fraternity party while both of them were myopic, or black-out drunk, allegedly because of his inability to appropriately interpret his partner’s behavior. With Sylvia Plath, Gladwell introduces the concept of coupling, in which suicide and context are inextricably linked, which is later extended to crime and location.
While I enjoy hearing about the theories of psychologist Timothy Levine, the academic on whom Gladwell relies for his basic argument, the simplicity of the concept that we greatly misunderstand strangers seems to fall short when applied to Brock Turner or Sandra Bland. Misunderstanding does not account for the death of a black woman while in custody of the Waller County jail cell. Gladwell admits as much, but when the book concludes I feel unsatisfied, like the seriousness of the examples demands a more weighty explanation.
Recommended for fans of Gladwell and his approachable journalistic style, especially with the added interest of the audiobook interviews and reenactments!