Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell


Talking to Friends

In his new book, Malcolm Gladwell works with the stories of Bernie Madoff, Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Sandra Bland, Larry Nassar, and others. He walks us through “things misunderstood and overlooked.”

Malcolm Gladwell is a storyteller who easily persuades his listeners that he is an expert. He works nimbly with other people’s ideas and makes them accessible for mass consumption by giving old ideas a catchy new name (outlier, blink, or tipping point) and weaving familiar stories around them. In his new book, Talking with Strangers, he works with the stories of Bernie Madoff, Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Sandra Bland, Larry Nassar, and others. The approach he uses is similar to what he does on his popular podcast, “Revisionist History.” He walks us through “things misunderstood and overlooked.”

The conversation to which Gladwell invites us begins with a conundrum. As our contacts have become more global and our circles of interaction more diverse, we inevitably find ourselves communicating with strangers. How do we know we can trust them? Gladwell asserts that most of us begin with the assumption that strangers are telling us the truth (Truth Default Theory) and that what we see in our first impressions is who the stranger really is (Transparency). At the same time we don’t assume that everything about us is immediately apparent, because we know we are complex and variable. This difference in the way we perceive ourselves and strangers Gladwell calls The Illusion of Assymetric Insight.

Much of the time the assumptions with which we begin work out okay, but sometimes they don’t and communication goes off the rails. Others aren’t as transparent as we think, and we misjudge them. Sometimes we make the wrong gamble in determining truth and falsehood. Gladwell’s stories are demonstrations of how quickly things can go wrong (Sandra Bland and Amanda Knox) and how long the miscommunications can flounder before the house of cards collapses (Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, and Larry Nassar). When things fall apart there is a scramble to assign blame. Why didn’t someone do something to stop the travesty? We refuse to see that the failure to stop bad from going to worse is due to others doing what we ourselves do, most of the time. We assume people are transparent and are revealing the truth about themselves, and we trust our own perceptions.

What gets us off track sometimes is our failure to balance immediate considerations with longer-term considerations. This Gladwell calls myopia, a word play on short-sightedness. Furthermore we often fail to modulate our perceptions by considering their context. It’s as true of others as it is true of us that we act in certain ways because the context allows it. In a different context our actions might be different.

Obviously Gladwell is distressed by those incidents in which matters took a disastrous turn. He grasps for ideas that could help us deal more effectively with strangers. It seems the best he has to offer is that we should accept our limits. We should admit to ourselves that we aren’t very good at figuring out the strangers with whom we interact.

“Whatever it is we are trying to find out about the strangers in our midst is not robust…. The thing we want to learn about a stranger is fragile. If we tread carelessly it will crumple under our feet. And from that follows a second cautionary note: we need to accept that the search to understand a stranger has real limits. We will never know the whole truth. We have to be satisfied with something short of that.” (p. 262)

What if we move beyond what Gladwell is offering and compare the way we deal with strangers and the way we deal with friends. Real friends, deep friends, aren’t all the people in the contact lists of our computers. They aren’t just people we like for the moment. They are people we know well, in many settings over many years, and even through the course of experiences that have changed them.

That’s the way real friends know us too. They’ve been with us in our good and bad moments, in the times when we were shaken and those times when we were steady. They’ve observed us when our characters were shiny and good and also the other times when the tarnish was more visible.
Are we inept dealing with strangers because we are neglecting time engaged with friends? We are spending more time in one dimensional, quickly passing encounters with people we don’t know, and we don’t intend to know. We interact with them because we want to get something done. More and more our lives are organized that way. That’s bad news for the strangers with whom we deal. It’s also bad news for us because over time our own default position shifts, and we are more comfortable acting like a stranger than a friend.

This is not a new idea. It is nearly two decades ago that Robert Putnam suggested in his book Bowling Alone (2000) that our communities are dissolving as we engage in fewer activities together. It is nearly a decade ago that Sherry Turkle warned us in Alone Together (2011) that technology separates us from each other. She followed that up with Reclaiming Conversation (2015) in which she cautioned that the flight from face to face encounters reduces our comfort with relationships and our capacity for empathy.

Is it possible that the more we neglect time spent with others who know us deeply, the more comfortable we become acting like strangers? Is our own default position shifting from that of friend to that of stranger? Our habitual ways of perceiving strangers is one dimension of the problems we have trusting strangers, but an equally important dimension of the problem is our own discomfort acting like a friend. The test is not whether I perceive the other as a friend or a stranger. The real test is what I assume about myself in any given situation. Which persona is my own default? Am I more tuned into being a friend or being a stranger?

Where the Crawdads Sing

When the Crawdads Stopped Singing

When I picked up Delia Owens’ new book, I was charmed by the poetry. Owens has an eye for natural things, and she has an instinct for the rhythms of life and death in the marsh and the swamp. She describes veins in a wasp’s wing, the sound of wind moving through tall grass, the shifting light of daylight and moonlight hours, the smells of the sea and lagoons, and the ever present heaving and shifting of sandflats, estuaries, marshes and the shoreline of the Atlantic. She tugs at our senses, and lures us into the place where the crawdads sing. In this rich setting she introduces us to a feral child.

Kya is the youngest of five children living with a violent father and battered mother in the untamed coastal marshes of North Carolina. One by one the children peel themselves away from their violent family, and when their mother can no longer bear the violence she too walks off, never to return. Little Kya is left with a father who is present less and less, because he feels more at home at the bar. At last when her father stops returning home at all, ten year old Kya is left on her own in a shack tucked away in an isolated place where “the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”

Drawing on her early memories of her mother, Kya is able to light the wood fire stove and cook her own mussels and grits. She catches fish in the places her father showed her. Using the small boat he has left tied up in the channel, Kya navigates to the bait shop where she barters the mussels she gathers and the fish she catches and smokes. Her needs are basic: fuel for her boat, matches and candles, and a few food items such as grits and Crisco. For the rest, much like any animal living in the wild, Kya spends her days uncovering the intricacies of her environs and hiding herself away when anything dangerous intrudes on it. The intruders she fears most are humans.

Ingenuity for survival, this ability to make do with what nature offers, is what makes the story of a little girl living way out “where the crawdads sing” so intriguing. Now and then the reader is likely to pause and consider if it is possible for a child to survive on her own this way, but Owens demonstrates how each challenge is faced one small step at a time. The story stretches credibility, but it does not rupture it.

The second layer to Owens’ story is Kya’s inevitable encounters with other humans. Tate is a boy whom Kya sees fishing in the marsh, and from whom she hides while watching from a distance. When she gets lost navigating through the complex tangle of channels, she sees Tate fishing and has no choice but to ask him to help her find her way home. It turns out he knows who she is and where her shack is because he knew one of her older brothers.

Kya’s encounter with Tate begins a series of delicate communications carried on without a word as they leave feathers for each other in the stump of an old tree. The feathers are curiosities: he leaves the tail feather of a tropicbird and the “eyebrow” feather of a blue heron. She leaves the feather of a young eagle. It is interesting that Owens chooses these particular feathers and these particular birds because they are totem animals. The blue heron finds what it needs by silently waiting, by being determined and unperturbed. The isolative tropicbird spends long hours in flight out over the sea and when on land is hidden in an out of the way nest. Sometimes Owens cannot resist explaining herself. As Kya discovers one of the gifts left for her in the stump, the author writes: “She stood absolutely still, trying to take it in, what it meant. She had watched male birds wooing females by bringing them gifts. But she was pretty young for nesting.” Later Tate leaves some things Kya may need and a note to explain, but Kya has to admit to Tate that she cannot read his note. Rather than shame her illiteracy, he offers her another kind of gift. He teaches her reading and arithmetic. He opens up her world by bringing her books.

When Owens is writing about the natural world, about its creatures and survival, it is clear that she is writing about a world with which she is enchanted. A quick internet search reveals why. She has lived for decades in wild places, in Africa among lions, hyenas, and elephants, where she was embedded as a wildlife researcher. She knows these animals like family. There is both expertise and delight in the way Owens shares the intricacies of nature.

Sadly, scattered throughout her chapters of exquisite nature writing are other chapters that distract from Owens’ talent in portraying the place where the crawdads sing. Kya is accused of murder by bungling local detectives who have decided from the beginning of their investigation that the oddest person around is the guilty one. Owens writes a fairly good trial episode, but in the course of it she loses the character of Kya, who becomes pathetic, passive, and defenseless. Were it not for the men who come to her rescue (the public defender, her brother who reappears, and Tate who believes in her innocence) Kya would be doomed to spend the rest of her life in a dull prison cell.

There is also a romantic triangle woven through Owens’ story. The flashy, charming town boy pursues Kya because she is beautiful and wild. Bedding her earns him bragging rights. And there is Tate, the friend too good to be true, whom Kya underestimates. Owens plays these two characters off against each other in a clichéd plot that has the elements of a 1950’s good boy vs. bad boy movie script. These themes do not fit the character we first meet as an amazing feral child.

The murder mystery and the courtroom drama are not Owens’ forte. They are unoriginal. It seems that Owens fell into the trap of stereotyping her female protagonist. The brave male who survives in the wild does not need to be rescued by love, why does the female? Similarly the male who is judged unfairly because he is a marginal or invisible person survives by flight or fight. Why must an accused female collapse in defeat and be rescued?

This is Delia Owens’ first novel. One can hope that her next novel will work with what she knows best, i.e. the natural world and the quest for survival. If this comment is offensive to Delia Owens, I apologize, because the world of critics is often unfair to debut novelists. Now that Delia Owens has made the best seller lists, she has earned for herself the right to craft the story that will showcase what is the best in her writing. I’m eager to read it. I hope she will let her imagination go back to where the crawdads sing.

Things We Refuse to See

Téa Obreht’s new novel  is a many layered work of imagination, into which she leads the reader by introducing two powerful characters and a setting so vivid the reader is viscerally drawn into events, even though not able to understand them.

Lurie, a boy of six, immigrates to the United States in the 1850’s with his father, who dies soon after their arrival. In Oliver Twist fashion Lurie survives through crime: first as a pick-pocket, then a grave robber, and finally a highway robber, who falls in with a notorious gang that holds up stagecoaches. After Lurie commits a senseless murder, bounty hunters pursue him, and his life of crime turns into a life on the run.

In his wanderings Lurie crosses paths with the United States Camel Corp (an actual historic unit of the US army), whose camel drivers were recruited from the nations of the Ottoman Empire. Among them Lurie feels kinship, and traveling with them allows him to take cover under a new identity. In what Lurie describes as a pivotal point in his life, he is given charge of a camel named Burke.

Obreht’s other main character is Nora, a woman who has followed the man she loves to the frontier town of Amargo (the word for bitter) where he is the newspaperman. Nora homesteads their farm and is the mainstay of the family, providing for her impractical husband, her two rowdy sons, her mute mother-in-law, a daft niece who is given to swoons and séances, and her youngest son who becomes half-blind and inclined to hearing voices and seeing things after he strikes his head in a fall from a horse. The territory in which they live has been stricken by drought, and Nora’s household is close to the end of its reserves of water. She is impatient about small things and uses harsh words with her children, but Nora continues judiciously doling out the precious water drop by drop, taking none for herself. She is desperate and parched.

What these two stories have to do with each other is not obvious at first. Obreht offers them to us in tandem without making the connections clear. Lurie is a wanderer; Nora is a settler. The Arizona territory of Inland where they struggle to survive is not the cowboy country of old movies. There are no heroes or winners in Obreht’s stories. It is a violent and ugly place where death lurks on every side, and survival is random.

We are with Lurie when he slides his skinny boyish arm down into a grave to twist loose from a corpse what he wants to steal. We watch over Nora’s shoulder as she examines the dried up corpse of a young girl who has crawled into the shelter of a cave after suffering sunstroke. We watch wolves feed on the dead and buzzards pick the bones clean. In the purgatorial territory where Lurie is hiding out and Nora is searching for water, these ghoulish events are common, and Obreht’s descriptions of them are brilliant.

These noir adventures have another layer. The stories are riddled with haunts and wandering spirits. Evelyn, Nora’s five month old daughter, dies of sunstroke, but Nora never relinquishes her to death. This gritty woman who is outspokenly cynical about the spiritualism of her niece Josie and chides her son for his belief that their farm is visited by a monster and the ghost of a dead man, preserves for herself the phantom company of her dead daughter. Year by year Evelyn grows up in Nora’s imagination, and their ongoing communication is the soft edge of consolation in Nora’s harsh life of isolation and duty.

Lurie also has haunts. He sees specters of dead children buried along the roadsides of the wagon trail. The corpses he touched while robbing graves haunt him, and the young man he murdered remains with him. Lurie’s boyhood friends, Hobb and Donovan, continue to pass their wants into him, so that Lurie feels compelled to act for them. In Lurie’s world the living and dead are not kept separate.

Among the living Lurie’s closest companion is Burke, his camel. Durable and faithful, Burke becomes the steady ground that moves along under Lurie, the one sure thing from which he knows he must never be parted. Lurie shares his inner thoughts with Burke, and in these dialogues the shattered memories of Lurie’s childhood are gradually reassembled.

Names are important in the two stories of Inland. Lurie recalls that his immigrant father, Hadziosman Djurić, changed his name to Hodgeman Drury because he resented being mistaken for a Turk. When the landlady released his father’s body to the undertaker, the best approximation of his name she could offer was Hodge Lurie. That is the origin of Lurie’s own name. Years later Lurie discovers that his father’s name was Hadji Osman, and that Hadji was the honorific granted after his father made the Hadj to Mecca in fulfillment of his religious obligation as a Muslim. Lurie’s friend, the camel driver Hadji Ali, has endured similar distortions of his name and honor. In America he is called Hi Jolly because his name and its meaning are foreign. With the help of Ali, Lurie is able to recall the place of his birth in Herzegovina, and from that day forward Ali calls him Misafir (sojourner). “We have all been called this or that over the years,” says Ali, “but now we are who we are.”

Given that names are so important, why would Obreht name a camel Burke? He is not a minor character. In fact he is a hero, the steadfast one who plods on and never gives up. He is the one who carries the burdens and endures the trials. Much of Lurie’s story is told in the form of conversations with Burke. Why then the name?

Could Obreht be referencing Edmund Burke, who promoted an aesthetic of the sublime and held that great mysteries, which surpass beauty and are beyond the bounds of reason, are experienced in astonishment? In Nora’s story it is her niece Josie who is most open to astonishment. She calls in conversations with the “other living” (the dead) and bends the limits of time to see back into the hidden past and forward into the unknown future. With regard to everything practical Josie is incompetent, but she is fearlessly open to mystery because “What we see with our hearts is often far truer than what we see with our eyes.”

When at last the two stories that Obreht has been spinning side by side come crashing together, Lurie’s story becomes Nora’s story, and her story completes his. In this too Josie is the medium. Things not seen before can be seen, and things denied are acknowledged. The reader is left standing in the rubble of the stories, seeing for the first time clearly what was in plain sight all along. The reader is also left wondering about things we refuse to see, when like Nora we flee from mystery and hold on to falsehoods because they seem more manageable than the truth.