Malcolm Gladwell is trying to understand a conversation he cannot get out of his head. In 2015, he watched video of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was pulled over by a white police officer in a traffic stop in Texas. The exchange escalated and the police officer forced Bland from her car. Bland was arrested and three days later, still in jail, she committed suicide.
“I was so shaken by it,” says Gladwell. “It was so tragic and heartbreaking.” In the video, Gladwell recognized the racism and police brutality that others decried at the time, but he also kept wondering why so many interactions between strangers go awry.
In Talking to Strangers (Little, Brown, Sept.), Gladwell goes in search of an answer to the question at the root of his obsession with Bland: “What happens when we have to deal with the unfamiliar?” To do it, he explores major figures, from Montezuma and Cortes to Fidel Castro and the CIA. He also takes up some of the most disturbing stories of our own time, including that of the convicted rapist and former Penn State football coach, Jerry Sandusky.
“We have these internal narratives that we’re using to make sense of things, and they’re built around people we know,” says Gladwell. “The core problem is that we’re approaching strangers the same way.”
With each story, Gladwell finds evidence of what went wrong in the case of Sandra Bland, but he cautions that readers in search of clean answers won’t find them in the book. “One of the things I’m trying to get people to accept is the inherent messiness of this process,” says Gladwell. “The biggest problem that we have is our insistence that there is some kind of neat and tidy way of resolving encounters between strangers.”
Instead, Gladwell says, “I want an audience to accompany me on a conversation about complicated questions and doing it in an unconstrained way.” It is a different kind of storytelling for Gladwell, rich with first-person accounts, and informed by the style of his podcast, Revisionist History, which launched in 2016.
“I’ve fallen in love with that form,” says Gladwell, who hopes it makes for a different kind of book from his previous works. “I’m much more interested in the character and the story, and a little less interested in the theory and the doctrine.”
Today, 8–9:30 a.m. Malcolm Gladwell will speak at the Adult Book & Author Breakfast, on the Main Stage.