Malcolm Gladwell has a new obsession: why do we get each other so wrong, so often? In the pages of Talking to Strangers (Allen Lane, $35), The New Yorker staff writer and internationally bestselling author of Outliers tries to figure it out.

Talking to Strangers opens with the case of Sandra Bland. A young African-American vlogger from Chicago, Bland was driving through regional Texas in 2015 when she encountered Brian Encinia, a local cop who stopped her for failing to signal. The conversation between Bland and Encinia began calmly enough, but quickly escalated into hostility. Before she knew what was happening, Bland found herself in a gaol cell. Three days later, she was dead.

Gladwell chalks Bland’s premature end to broken communication. Neither she nor Encinia, he argues, knew how to read each other. But with the misplaced confidence we all experience when we judge others, each felt they had the other’s number. “We think we can see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest clues,” Gladwell writes. “We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves, of course. We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy.”

Threading sociology with anecdote, Gladwell takes us on a tour of some of recent history’s most famous misunderstandings – from wrongfully convicted university student Amanda Knox to wrongfully trusted Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff – to prove just how hard strangers can be to decode. Gladwell also examines the trial of Brock Turner, the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the suicide of Sylvia Plath.

Always interesting, if sometimes implausible – can miscommunication really explain Bland’s ultimately fatal encounter with the white policeman? – Gladwell’s meandering journey across our ragged, jagged social landscape is well worth tagging along for.

By Greer Gamble

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