How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn't true? Something is very wrong, Malcolm Gladwell argues, with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don't know.
There is a reason why Gladwell is a rock star of nonfiction. This is a dazzling book. Stories are well selected and brilliantly told, ideas are slowly revealed until the reader arrives at a conclusion they didn’t expect. Gladwell is advancing ideas and, sure, they are all open to challenge. Is Levine right about TDT? Are the theories of crime prevention correct? But they are stimulating and convincing — and you won’t regret a minute you spend mastering them.
Depending on the reader, these connections are either entertaining and insightful or wild and tendentious, even misleading. Talking to Strangers, Gladwell’s exploration of deception and misunderstanding in human communication, is sure to find both types of reader ... Gladwell is impressive in his range of historical conundrums ... Gladwell’s exhaustive analysis of the [Sandra] Bland case is unconvincing and troubling ... Similarly, Gladwell dances around the topic of torture in his chapter on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ... He explicitly sidesteps the ethics of torture to keep his analysis tidy, yet in the end his case study is too tidy to ring true.
Gladwell has never shied away from incendiary material, and his newest book is no exception ... Gladwell has a well-honed method for handling live wires, which involves encasing them in psychological and sociological theory and then proceeding to bend them to his will...every anecdote, every story, gets folded into a Big Idea ... his italicized conclusions are designed to hit us with the force of revelation when it finally dawns on us how everything fits together ... Amping up the drama like this doesn’t have to feel cheap; there’s a fine tradition of storytelling as benign manipulation, and in his articles for The New Yorker, Gladwell often gets the balance right. But not here. In Talking With Strangers, he uses theory like a cudgel on sensitive material ... Gladwell’s insistence on theory can be distorting, rather than clarifying. Theory can provide a handy framework, transforming the messy welter of experience into something more legible, but it can also impose a narrative that’s awkward, warped or even damaging ... this anodyne sentiment is too vague and banal to explain anything, much less carry a book, and Gladwell knows it.