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Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers:” Audiobook Review

Can a book be simultaneously riveting and wrong?

Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers” would be akin to reading Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Neither were intended to be read; they were written to be performed. And Malcolm Gladwell is nothing save the consummate raconteur.

“Talking to Strangers” — the audiobook — is like an 8 1/2 hour passionately narrated documentary film made for blind people. Riddled with seemingly disparate subjects, the book is seamlessly threaded together and neatly conjoined by cliffhanging end-of-chapter propositions. Wait for it… just wait for it…

There used to be filmmakers who documented phenomena over time. Since the last great and honest documentary, “Hoop Dreams,” most documentarians know the outcomes of their narratives before they ever pick up a camera. Documentaries no longer document phenomena as they unravel “out there” in the world; rather, most documentaries today create the preconditions for the unraveling in order to “discover” facts that rise to meet the filmmakers’ theories. Dear few documentaries turn out with the perfect and unexpected narrative twists that organically unfolded in “Hoop Dreams.” Most docs today are tantamount to propaganda, preaching to choirs of liberals that already share our views, such as “Look how stupid and misguided those other guys are!

This is one major flaw of “Talking to Strangers.” We know from the beginning that Gladwell’s and our sympathies will land squarely with Sandra Bland.

The only mystery that makes us willing to endure 8 1/2 hours of narration is “Why?

And this is where Gladwell misses the mark. While busy convincing the listener that Sandra Bland’s behavior is mismatched with her true persona and Officer Encinia mistakenly assumes transparency, Gladwell glibly skips over the most important realities of contemporary racism — namely, the American educational system and our media.

For example, I am a white, over-educated male who grew up watching far too many police detective television shows in the 1970s and 1980s. Here is what I learned as a white person from watching police dramas in the 1970s and 1980s, repeatedly viewing mostly white detectives and private investigators — Columbo, Rockford, Magnum, etc. — apprehend a preponderance of colorful perpetrators: I have the right to remain silent. Anything I say can and probably will be used against me either immediately or later in a court of law.

So when interacting with the police, I learned that LESS IS MORE.

“Yes, officer.”

“No, officer.”

“I respectfully decline to answer that question, officer.”

That’s it.

Those are my three responses until I am arrested and my lawyer is present.

For some reason (say, endemic and systemic racism), minorities do not appear to have learned these responses. They appear unaware that — at best — running off at the mouth is going to get them arrested. At worst, it’s going to piss off the police officer who might drag them out of their car and tase them in an effort to repair the cop’s bruised ego.

Sandra Bland was guilty of both running off at the mouth and pissing off a police officer. But nothing else.

Next, if a police officer stops my (white person) car, I know that this situation represents the second greatest potentially lethal threat to that officer that day. The officer wants to finish her or his shift and go do whatever the officer enjoys doing during her or his leisure time (insert joke of choice here). The first place an officer is likely to be killed in the line of duty is answering a domestic violence call. The second place is during a routine traffic stop. Therefore, I need to go out of my way to make the officer feel as if I pose no threat to her or him going home at the end of her or his shift. No threat at all to the officer arriving at home and partaking in whatever leisure activities float his or her boat that day (insert second joke of choice here).

Here is how an over-educated white male interacts with a police officer:

  1. Tinted windows — the officer’s inability to see clearly into the car — freak cops out. If my windows are tinted and electric, then I use the electric controls on the door panel to lower all of the windows as soon as I pull the car over.
  2. Then I place both hands on the steering wheel or dangle them lifelessly out of the window. The officer needs to be able to see both of my hands clearly at all times. PeriodNo exceptions.
  3. I do not make any sudden movements or reach for anything (including my driver’s licenses and/or registration) until I am asked to do so.
  4. When asked to produce my driver’s license and registration, I look the officer in the eyes and tell him where both are currently located and how I plan to retrieve them. For example, while keeping both hands resting calmly on the steering wheel, I say, “Officer, my license and registration are in the glove box. May I reach for them slowly with my right hand, please?” Or, “Officer, my license is in my wallet in my back pocket and my registration is tucked above the passenger side visor. May I slowly reach for them, please?”

Two important notes regarding police interactions:

  1. If an officer asks you to please step out of the car, the worst thing you can do is ask, “Is that really necessary, officer?” The officer has already made his or her assessment and decided that you pose a threat. No officer is going to say, “You’re right. I was hasty. It’s not necessary that you get out of the car.” You are just going to piss off the officer by having asked an inane question. Again, police departments have worked tirelessly for decades to develop protocols that insure the safety of their officers in these highly combustible situations. In Gladwell’s accurate recounting of the interaction between Officer Encinia and Ms. Bland from the dashboard camera, Officer Encinia follows protocol courteously until Ms. Bland refuses to put out her cigarette and then starts running off at the mouth.
  2. Law enforcement officials know language games. “May I search your car?” can be answered “Yes, you may search my car, officer” or “No, I do not give you permission to search my car without a search warrant, officer.” However, with heightened emotions, the question “DO YOU MIND if I search your car?” may confuse some people. Actually, “YES, I DO MIND if you search my car without a search warrant, officer,” is the proper response. But a flustered or nervous individual — especially before traffic stops were recorded by dashboard and body cameras — might mistakenly answer, “No” as in “No, you can’t search the car,” which could unintentionally give the officer permission to search the car because he could claim he heard, “No,” as in “NO, I DON’T MIND if you search the car.”

All of the above serves to demonstrate the systemic racism endemic in our educational system and what people of different races learn through the media and popular culture. For me, NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” was ironic; for a young man who grew up in Compton, it was not.

The fact that Amanda Knox’s or Bernie Madoff’s or Sandra Bland’s behaviors were mismatched with their situations and they were not transparent as perceived by outside observers, is not the real story. In the tragedy of Sandra Bland, the guilty party is the racism pervasive throughout our country. Assumptions of transparency, the human propensity to default to beliefs we (mistakenly) refer to as “truthes,” and misguided gung-ho cops going “beyond the ticket” are secondary. Gladwell’s argument would have been more convincing if it focused on subconscious racism and our failure to teach EVERYONE equally how to interact properly with authority figures.

“Yes, officer.”

“No, officer.”

“I respectfully decline to answer that question, officer.”

Playing prosecutor, judge and jury in this riveting already-decided narrative of blaming Officer Encinia for misreading Sandra Bland’s cues may tug at our heartstrings, but it offers no solutions. Teaching all people — including police officers — Social Emotional Learning and how to interact respectfully and compassionately with each other is the only thing that will preclude future Bland-Encinia interactions from unraveling so tragically.

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