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With ‘Talking to Strangers,’ Malcolm Gladwell Goes Dark

In the weeks I spent listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, I learned that lobsters have serotonin, that Elvis Presley suffered from parapraxis and that Mr. Gladwell adheres to a firm life rule that he drink only five liquids: water, tea, red wine, espresso and milk.

On the afternoon I met the author and journalist, I had just listened to an episode in which he interviews an intimidating guest. His audio recorder malfunctions, and he has to sprint to Staples to get a replacement. “I was embarrassed,” Mr. Gladwell confides in the podcast. “I worried that he would think I was pathetic.” It sounded mortifying. And yet when I sat down to interview Mr. Gladwell, at the kitchen table of his Manhattan apartment, I went ahead and trusted my own recorder.

This is what Mr. Gladwell, in his new book, “Talking to Strangers,” calls “default to truth.” Human beings are by nature trusting — of people, technology, everything. Often, we’re too trusting, with tragic results. But if we didn’t suppress thoughts of worst-case scenarios, we’d never leave the house. We definitely wouldn’t go on dating apps or invest in stocks or let our kids take gymnastics.

“It would be impossible!” Mr. Gladwell said, throwing up his hands, almost giddy at imagining the social paralysis that would occur if we were a less trusting species. “Everyone would withdraw their money from banks,” he continued. “In fact, the whole internet exists because people default to truth. Nothing is secure! They are hacking into the cloud as we speak!”

The “default to truth” theory is Mr. Gladwell’s latest obsession and the theme of his first book in six years. Lots of readers will scoff. After his first two pop-science smash hits — “The Tipping Point” (2000) and “Blink” (2005) — Mr. Gladwell’s reviews have steadily worsened, with prominent critics savaging his anecdote-heavy methodology. I counted myself among the skeptics. I doubted the premise of “Talking to Strangers” and dismissed it as armchair psychology.

And then my audio recorder broke midinterview, and I became a believer.

This wasn’t just coincidence. It’s exactly what Mr. Gladwell’s towering success — his five best-selling books, his six-figure speaking fees, his top-rated podcast — rests on: the moment when the skeptic starts to think that maybe we’re wrong about everything and maybe, just maybe, this Mr. Gladwell guy is onto something.

Nearly 20 years and millions of sales after his nonfiction debut, Mr. Gladwell is at something of a professional tipping point. He elicits from readers the kind of polarized reactions usually reserved for talk-radio hosts. To one camp, he is a master storyteller, pithily translating business concepts and behavioral science to a lay audience. To others, he is a faux intellectual, dressing up ordinary truths (such as an “Outliers” argument that success results from a combination of hard work and opportunity) as counterintuitive genius. How “Talking to Strangers” is received could cement Mr. Gladwell in one of those camps for good.

The book is weightier than his previous titles. There are no romps through pop culture (“The Tipping Point”), no tinge of self-help about the power of first impressions (“Blink”). Rather, Mr. Gladwell asks readers to rethink grim topics like police misconduct, child sexual assault, suicide and campus rape, all through the prism of our often disastrous instinct to trust that the people we meet are telling us the truth.

The topic — and Mr. Gladwell’s message that we should all approach strangers “with caution and humility” — has fortuitous timing, given a political climate in which we can hardly stand to interact with people who watch a different cable network. But Mr. Gladwell recoils at the implication that “Talking to Strangers” has anything to do with President Trump.

“I first got the idea in the pre-Trump era of police violence,” Mr. Gladwell said. In 2014, after the fatal police shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., Mr. Gladwell started to think about a book that would explore these topics. A year later, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman in Texas, was found hanged in her jail cell after a traffic stop, and Mr. Gladwell’s idea crystallized.

“That was the case that made me realize: ‘Oh, this is what my book is about. This is the moral reason behind it,’” he said.

ImageCreditLittle, Brown and Company

“Talking to Strangers” includes a second-by-second assessment of what happened on July 10, 2015, when Trooper Brian Encinia — “white, short dark hair, thirty years old” — pulled over Ms. Bland near the campus of Prairie View A&M University.

“He was courteous — at least at first,” Mr. Gladwell writes, in his typical pared-down prose. “He told her that she had failed to signal a lane change. He asked her questions. She answered them. Then Bland lit a cigarette, and Encinia asked her to put it out.”

That is the moment when the interaction turned. Mr. Gladwell examines it not simply through a lens of race, but through the fact that they were strangers. People seemingly so different that they were destined to collide.

“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,” Mr. Gladwell writes.

The Bland case opens and closes the book, and Mr. Gladwell said he could have devoted the entire volume to her. “If I was rewriting this book as a purely intellectual exercise and didn’t have to worry about reaching a wide audience, you could just do it on Sandra Bland,” he said.

But his publisher, and his fan base, have come to expect a sprawl of anecdotes. And so he applies the truth-default theory — which originated with a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Timothy R. Levine — to Jerry Sandusky, Amanda Knox, Brock Turner, Bernie Madoff. Sylvia Plath makes an appearance.

In many ways, “Talking to Strangers” is Mr. Gladwell’s bleakest work. “Each of my books has had moments or chapters of things that were consequential,” he said, “but this is a lot of them. There’s no happy, uplifting part.”

I ended the book thinking that we are all doomed to misunderstand one another forever.

Yeah, Mr. Gladwell said. “It’s a little bit like that.”

Discount code ‘GLADWELL’

At 55, in clear-framed spectacles and a head of curls, Mr. Gladwell still has the spindly, featherweight look of someone who can break a five-minute mile on a casual weekend run. He lives in a two-story townhouse apartment in the West Village, brimming with books, vintage furniture and a set of eclectic paintings of the Ethiopian Army. We sat at a heavy wooden table as 90-degree August soup poured through the open windows.

He had just finished interviewing applicants for a job as his assistant. Mr. Gladwell, who early in his career wrote a memorable New Yorker takedown of the hiring practices of McKinsey & Company, recognized the irony.

“I told them, ‘You know I don’t believe in job interviews, or that you can learn anything meaningful about people in job interviews,’” he said.

Lately, there is a lot for an assistant to assist with. Mr. Gladwell continues to give paid speeches and is a favorite on the cerebral festival circuit. Last year, he started a podcasting company, Pushkin Industries, with his friend Jacob Weisberg, the former chairman and editor in chief of the Slate Group. Mr. Gladwell’s flagship show, “Revisionist History,” draws as many as three million listeners per episode — several times the audience that even a top-selling nonfiction title draws in a year.

Books take years to complete, but thanks to Pushkin, Mr. Gladwell’s typical reader — whom he has described as “a 45-year-old guy with three kids who’s an engineer at some company outside of Atlanta” — can partake in a virtuous cycle of Gladwell programming. The podcast teases interest in a souped-up “Talking to Strangers” audiobook, which builds an audience for more speeches, which stokes advertisers for the podcasts. Mr. Gladwell lends his voice, with its emo librarian timbre, to a varied list of sponsors, from home security to hair loss. (“Ten percent off your first month with discount code ‘GLADWELL.’”)

When I suggested that all of this constituted a vast and expanding Gladwell Industrial Complex, he cringed. “Ack!” he said. “Careful. No, I don’t have a media empire. I am part of a podcasting company.”

The way Mr. Gladwell sees it, despite his equity stake in Pushkin, all of his work is still journalism — a natural offshoot of the articles that made him famous, first at The Washington Post and then at The New Yorker. He’s just grown up, and gotten a little more entrepreneurial.

“You can’t be a reporter forever,” he said. True enough. But few reporters ever become discount codes.

ImageCreditSamantha Burkardt/Getty Images‘Post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies’

Mr. Gladwell loves to remind people that he is Canadian — more specifically, “a short Canadian.” He says this all the time, starting sentences with “The Canadian in me …” and “Growing up in a small town in Canada …”

His parents — Mr. Gladwell is the son of a Jamaican mother and an English father — moved to Elmira, Ontario, “a small, conservative, Bible Belt town,” when he was a child. After graduating from Trinity College at the University of Toronto, he struck out for a job in advertising but ended up in journalism, writing for two conservative magazines.

Mr. Gladwell joined The Post as a health and business reporter in 1987 and became a staff writer at The New Yorker about a decade later. There, he produced a string of knockout articles that reshaped the conventional wisdom on subjects from ketchup to the “broken windows” theory of policing.

“He was never interested in the traditional profile of a C.E.O. or an investigative piece on the malfeasance of some bank or company,” David Remnick, the magazine’s editor, said. “He got intrigued by this combination of reporting, thinking, reading, storytelling, telling two stories at once that lead you to a revelatory conclusion.”

When “The Tipping Point” was published, it became such a part of marketing vernacular that M.B.A. programs made it assigned reading. The Roots named their 2004 album after the book. The founder of Starbucks publicly credited his chain’s success with “the tipping-point phenomenon.” Donald Rumsfeld even used the term to describe the teetering status of the war in Iraq.

Mr. Gladwell became synonymous with an emerging genre of wonky but readable nonfiction. “Everyone thinks I wrote ‘Freakonomics,’” he said. Readers were captivated by his artful repurposing of academic research, as he repeatedly launched ideas and phrases — “mavens” and “connectors” and “the 10,000-hour rule” — into the lexicon. Time magazine named him one of its 100 Most Influential People.

But as Mr. Gladwell’s sales soared — his third book drew a reported $6 million advance — critics didn’t just sour on his work. They started to rip it apart.

“The reasoning in ‘Outliers,’ which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle,” a Harvard professor wrote in 2009. In 2013, a Times columnist ended his review bluntly: “It’s time for Malcolm Gladwell to find a new shtick.”

Mr. Gladwell said he didn’t really get ruffled by his critics. “I’ve never had a particularly thin skin,” he said. His friends point out that journalists can be especially jealous when one of their own so wildly succeeds. But the assertion that Mr. Gladwell has a schtick — or even a brand — does seem to irk him.

“Does Michael Lewis worry if he has a new schtick or an old schtick? I just enjoy his literary company,” Mr. Gladwell said. (Incidentally, Mr. Lewis, the author of such megahits as “Moneyball” and “The Big Short,” hosts a top-rated Pushkin podcast.)

“Critics take a more meta position that isn’t reflective of the audience,” Mr. Gladwell said. Besides, he added, “the marketplace value of a review has fallen. They’re not the gatekeeper anymore.” Despite mixed reviews, “Outliers” debuted at No. 1 on the Times best-seller list. And the paperback version is still there — for the 287th week.

ImageCreditBryan Derballa for The New York TimesBob Hope, Plutarch and the theory of spatiotemporal continuity

Some reviewers and Twitter critics may be out for blood when it comes to Mr. Gladwell’s writing. But that’s not really the case in podcasting, a younger and friendlier medium in which he can explore his every whim and not get raked over the coals.

“People don’t listen to what they don’t like,” Mr. Weisberg said. “It’s the opposite of The Times or Slate, when people don’t read an article but say something nasty about the writer or the headline. It’s just a constant today. You put your armor on because people are just going to start feeding on you.”

At Slate, Mr. Weisberg had conceived several hit podcasts, and he persuaded Mr. Gladwell to think about starting an audio program. “Revisionist History” began in 2016, billed as a journey through “things misunderstood and overlooked,” such as Wilt Chamberlain’s refusal to shoot free throws underhand to improve his accuracy and the decline of McDonald’s french fries.

Mr. Gladwell’s smooth Canadian lilt worked perfectly in the sensitive-bro realm of podcasting, although his habit of narrative digressions — which worked so well in a magazine story — made for a potential mess in audio.

Julia Barton, Pushkin’s executive editor, would send him heavily edited transcripts. “It’s like saying, ‘You’re a master sand painter, but suddenly, for whatever reason, you have to sand paint at night when it’s dark, and you know what you’re doing but you don’t know,” Ms. Barton said.

Whereas “Talking to Strangers” is Mr. Gladwell at his most sky-is-falling serious, his podcast delivers the unexpected whimsy of his earlier writing. In one episode this season, he reframes the Boston Tea Party as the tea mafia trying to gain a market advantage. Another episode was sparked by a friend’s jog around the perimeter of the exclusive Brentwood Country Club in Los Angeles. Mr. Gladwell connects his disgust over the off-limits greenery to Bob Hope, Plutarch and the theory of spatiotemporal continuity.

For the past several months, Mr. Gladwell has used his podcasts to promote the “newfangled” audiobook for “Talking to Strangers” — the kind of cross-promotion most publishers can only dream about. The audiobook merges Mr. Gladwell’s narration with interviews with criminologists, scientists, actors reading court transcripts and a Janelle Monáe song. His publisher — Little, Brown — produced the audiobook with Pushkin, which has plans to invest in more of these immersive hybrid book-podcast experiences.

Book publishing has been slow to figure out how to get in on the podcast craze, and Mr. Gladwell’s latest will be a major test in an industry increasingly reliant on Audible. While e-book sales have fallen and print has remained stagnant, publishers’ revenues from downloaded audiobooks have nearly tripled in the last five years, according to data from the Association of American Publishers.

Genteelly allowing strangers to remain strangers

“Talking to Strangers” begins with an introduction about his father, Graham Gladwell, and an encounter with a celebrity at the chic Mercer Hotel in Manhattan. As the two men enjoyed a chat about gardening, people kept approaching for pictures and autographs. His father never got the celebrity’s name. The interaction still makes Mr. Gladwell smile.

“It had to be someone huge for anyone to bother them at the Mercer Hotel!” he said. Robert Redford? Mick Jagger? He’ll never know. His father died in 2017, but his genteel approach to allowing strangers to remain strangers informs the whole of Mr. Gladwell’s book.

The “Talking to Strangers” focus on misunderstanding one another raises the obvious question of whether Mr. Gladwell feels misunderstood himself. In our interview, he never said as much explicitly. But he gave the unmistakable impression of being an introverted, maybe even aloof, person who is uncomfortable with elements of his literary celebrity.

Mr. Gladwell returned often to the subject of Sandra Bland. When he was growing up in Elmira, he said, police officers weren’t just police officers — they were also neighbors, fellow shoppers at the grocery store, people speaking up at P.T.A. meetings.

“I can’t tell you how many times I was 16 or 17 in my hometown and was pulled over,” he said. “You knew the cop in five different ways.”

But to Ms. Bland, the state trooper who pulled her over had a single face: cop. “That happens in these divided times — your professional identity becomes your identity,” Mr. Gladwell said.

“On every level,” he added, “I feel like there is this weird disconnect between the way the world is presented to us in the media and the way it really is. The goal is simply to give people an opportunity to reflect on things they otherwise wouldn’t reflect on. What they do next is out of my control.”


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