From Hitler To Drunken College Girls…Only Malcolm Could Make Sense Of It

It’s nice that over time, sitting here typing on my computer, looking out at a Texas suburb, I get to know some of you well enough to feel you’re not a stranger – even if I never met you in real life. And as many of you know, some of my favorite books this century have been from Malcolm Gladwell, a fellow alumni of the University of Toronto, albeit a stranger. But one who’d be a tremendous person to have dinner with, I’m sure.

Gladwell has found his niche making psychology and human nature interesting and combining a number of eminently interesting, but seemingly disparate case studies tie together in million-selling books.  Blink showed us how it can often be useful to believe our first impressions. His mammothly-successful breakthrough The Tipping Point suggested how some things get to be successful and popular – from old-fashioned hipster boots to VD in Baltimore – and other things don’t. His Outliers suggested that to be wildly successful, you need not only talent but a dedication to spend about 10 000 hours honing your craft, be you Wayne Gretzky and your vocation hobby, or the Beatles and your thing… well, being the Beatles. Music!

So, the latest book he wrote, Talking to Strangers, is surprising only to those who don’t know his work. Because those people would surely wonder how anyone could tie together stories about Hitler, ponzi-scheme ripoff artist Bernie Madoff, drunk college girls and midwestern police manuals and make it seem coherent. Which is what Malcolm does this time around. Oh, and did I mention, the war between the Mayans and the Spaniards?

Talking to Strangers does what he does – interesting case stories told well and briskly – loosely tied together.The overall theme is that we, people. as a species, do terribly when having to deal with strangers. We can assume the best of them, and risk the consequences (as thousands did with trusting their savings to Madoff or Olympian girl parents did with the respected Dr Nassar, gymnast doctor to the stars) or assume the worst of them (as police using Kansas City’s old crime-reduction suggestions do) and risk casualties, wrongfully-tarred civilians and worse.

The book is bookended by the story of Sandra Bland, a young woman who was pulled over by a Texas state trooper for making an improper lane change, and ended up dead from her own hand in a Lone Star jail days later. People tended to see it as Bland the victim – Black woman being profiled by racist White cop – or the cop as being vilified – officer pulls over a person and is polite, to begin, but is subject to provocation and verbal obscenity while feeling in danger himself. Gladwell is in the Bland camp, but is observant enough to point out the valid arguments from both… the world is complex, and knowing strangers is difficult. The officer was trained to feel that she was a potential murderer, but she was trying to go about her life and do good. Alas, he doesn’t have any catch-all, solve-all solutions. That’s for the reader to try to descramble in their own brain. An organ under-challenged by most mainstream media these days, so hats off to Malcolm.

Not his best book, probably not even in his top three. But in a world of relationships defined by The Bachelor and power illustrated by late-night tweets from the Oval Office, it might be the most important one yet from him. If you’re a person, and there are people in your life you don’t know … strangers … it’s a book worth your time.

2 Replies to “From Hitler To Drunken College Girls…Only Malcolm Could Make Sense Of It”

    1. he is. I’d suggest almost any of his works but ‘The Tipping Point’ seems like his most commented upon, and ‘Outleirs” like I said looks at the Beatles (among many things) and how their time in Berlin probably made them the band they were with – by his estimation – around 10 000 hours of practise. Bland’s case was a mess. She commit suicide, so it wasn’t police brutality (despite what some would say) but she really didn’t need to be in jail. The gist of that one is that the cop used ‘by the book’ techniques developed in KC to combat crime at night in high risk, high crime neighborhoods like stopping cars for anything like straddling a lane, rolling stops, you name it, as a ways to get to search suspicious vehicles. It wasn’t designed for daytime patrols in quiet suburbs, but he was taught to be in that KC-style mind set.

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