Why Malcolm Gladwell Says Interactions With Strangers Can Often Go Wrong : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Journalist Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling books have explored a wide range of topics from decision making to 'The Tipping Point.' His latest work, 'Talking To Strangers,' takes a look at stories such as the Sandra Bland case, the trial of Amanda Knox and the Stanford rape case to explain why interactions with strangers often go wrong. Sam spoke to Gladwell about his new book at The George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium on Sept. 11, 2019.

Best-Selling Author Malcolm Gladwell On 'Talking To Strangers': A Live Conversation

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Hey, y'all. From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders - IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. Today on the show, we have got a treat for you - a very special live conversation with Malcolm Gladwell. You probably know Malcolm for his five New York Times bestselling nonfiction books - "The Tipping Point," "Outliers," "What The Dog Saw," "David And Goliath" and "Blink." You may also know Malcolm as the host of the very popular podcast "Revisionist History." You may also know Malcolm as a New Yorker staff writer or his years writing for The Washington Post. He's been doing this stuff for a long time. But whether you've read him or not or have listened to him or not or know him or not, I can guarantee you someone you know at some point in their lives has bought a Malcolm Gladwell book in an airport. I guarantee it. That's how I found him.

So Malcolm and I caught up on stage recently to talk about his newest book. It's called "Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don't Know." This book is very much in his wheelhouse, drawing lots of different big ideas and theories and stories together to craft the capital-T thesis. But this one, "Talking To Strangers," is different. It's not as light as his earlier stuff. It's pretty heavy, and the book tackles some depressing topics.

In our chat, Malcolm tells me why he wanted to go in that direction. He also tells me why one of the constants in his reporting for years has been policing. And Malcolm Gladwell explains his close connections to not just one but two Democratic politicians currently running for president. All right, here's me and Malcolm Gladwell live at Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University in front of a packed house. OK. Enjoy.


SANDERS: So my weird thing is I have to do all my interviews with my shoes off. It's a weird good luck charm.


MALCOLM GLADWELL: Should I take off my shoes?


GLADWELL: You think I should take off...


SANDERS: I'm stealing your shoes. What size shoe are you? I'm stealing them. Those are cute. OK. Now we can, like, begin begin.


SANDERS: This is day two of your book tour. But I saw on day one - were you hanging out with Charlemagne tha God?

GLADWELL: I was. I had a day that...

SANDERS: Y'all are like friends, right?

GLADWELL: No. Well, that's too strong.


GLADWELL: I have a friend - I wish I was. I'm not really cool enough. I have a friend who is cool enough. And he - his name is Tommy, and Tommy is my conduit to Charlemagne.


GLADWELL: And Tommy actually - I tweeted this. Tommy had a dinner recently to which I was not invited because I didn't make the cut, but here who was at the dinner. This is such a kind of Tommy thing - Charlemagne, Desus and Mero, PFT Commenter, who's like a - if you are a sports nut, you'll know who he is, like a big - and...


GLADWELL: ...Pete Buttigieg.

SANDERS: I'm sorry, what?

GLADWELL: And I - so three iconic, you know, figures in kind of black, hip-hop media.

SANDERS: And Mayor Pete.

GLADWELL: A white kind of, like, hilarious sports guy and Mayor Pete. And my first question, of course, was, what did you guys talk about? And then Tommy says, fantasy football, of course. Like, I was - like it was obvious that that's what they were going to talk about, at which point my respect for Mayor Pete soared...


GLADWELL: ...In a way that actually - that embarrassed me somewhat. Like, it shouldn't soar upon learning that he's - he knows nine languages, he reads, you know, Norwegian fiction in the Norwegian.

SANDERS: Oh, he's let us know.

GLADWELL: The idea that he also has - follows fantasy football shouldn't raise the bar higher, but it did somehow.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, this is the weird thing about people as soon as they run for president. The only things we care about are all of the things that aren't actually what make them become a functional president. It's so weird the minutiae that we obsess with...

GLADWELL: Yeah. I have another relevant story on this.


GLADWELL: And this is pure boasting.


GLADWELL: So Kamala Harris, of course, I follow her. As someone who is of Jamaican heritage, I follow her very closely.

GLADWELL: I went to grad school with her niece, Nina (ph).

GLADWELL: Is that right?

SANDERS: She's very nice.



SANDERS: Anyways, as you were.

GLADWELL: So I did a little Googling, and I discovered that Kamala Harris' father grew up in a town in Jamaica called Brown's Town, which is where my mother went to high school.

SANDERS: Really?

GLADWELL: So I emailed her dad and said, you don't know me, but you grew up in Brown's Town where my mom went to high school. And he emailed back the following - he's like, OK, I know your mom went to St. Hilda's College in Brown's Town. I used to watch all the Brown's Town girls go to church and blah, blah, blah. And he said, but, more importantly, when I was at the University of West Indies doing my undergrad, I was encouraged to go into - to study mathematics, which is the reason I became an economist, by a young professor named - dot, dot, dot - Graham Gladwell. So my father is the one who encouraged Kamala Harris' dad to become an economist, which is the reason he moved to Stanford, which is the reason he married Kamala Harris' mom, which is the reason Kamala Harris - so...


SANDERS: Wait. Wait. Wait.

GLADWELL: If she's elected...

SANDERS: She better have you at the inauguration.

GLADWELL: I better be there...

SANDERS: You better be...

GLADWELL: ...Like, on the dais.


SANDERS: You better be secretary of something. She's a - what role in the Kamala Harris' Cabinet would you like?


GLADWELL: I think I should be able to name my position. I'm sorry. I am, like, present at the creation.


GLADWELL: Without Graham Gladwell, there is no Kamala Harris...


GLADWELL: ...Candidacy.

SANDERS: Yes, let her know.

GLADWELL: Yeah. I should. I should.

SANDERS: If y'all know her, tell her. Let's talk about the book.


SANDERS: I want to start this conversation about your book on a - the same way that you start your book...


SANDERS: ...On a very, very heavy topic. I'm talking about the case of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who was stopped by a Texas state trooper in 2015. What began as a routine traffic stop went very, very, very wrong. We're going to play some of that interaction right now. You're going to see it. You're going to hear it. Consider this a warning. It's heavy, heavy stuff.


BRIAN ENCINIA: Get out of the car now.

SANDRA BLAND: Why am I being apprehended? You're trying to give me a ticket for failure...

ENCINIA: I said, get out of the car.

BLAND: Why am I being apprehended? You just opened my car door. You just opened my car door. So you going to - you're threatening to drag me out of my own car?

ENCINIA: Get out of the car.

BLAND: And then you going to stun me?

ENCINIA: I will light you up.


ENCINIA: Get out now.

BLAND: Wow, wow, wow.

ENCINIA: Get out of the car.

BLAND: Really? For a failure to signal. You're doing all of this for a failure to signal.

ENCINIA: Get over there.

BLAND: Right. Yeah. Yeah. Let's take this to...

SANDERS: I've seen that video 20 times. It never gets better. That's Sandra Bland and a Texas police officer named Brian Encinia. Three days after Sandra was arrested during that traffic stop, she was found dead in a jail cell. And her death was ruled a suicide. You are not known for telling stories that hurt this much. I read your books. You cover a lot, but it's usually not this dark. You open your book with this. Why this? Why now?

GLADWELL: I was really - so I've been writing about two things for a long time; race and law enforcement. Every one of my books, except for "Outliers," has a big chapter on something to do with crime and police. So these are topics near and dear to my heart. And there was something about that wave of cases in - starting with Ferguson through Sandra Bland and then on and on...


GLADWELL: ...That really got to me in a way that I hadn't thought that - I hadn't anticipated. And then I read a book by a guy named Frank Zimring, who's a criminologist at Berkeley, called "When Police Kill," which really upset me, which was published in the middle of all of this, in which he asked - first of all, he asked the question, how many American civilians die at the hands of law enforcement every year? And the first third of the book is trying to figure out what the number is because, surprisingly, we don't know what the number is...

SANDERS: No one keeps data. Yeah.

GLADWELL: ...Which is a shocking fact. And then, second, he figures out the number. And then he asked the question, is this number - and it's a thousand. And he asked the question, is that high or low? - like - so relative to other countries.

SANDERS: What do you think?

GLADWELL: And the answer is it's way, way, way, way high.


GLADWELL: And then the third question he asks is, why? And he has a whole long list of answers. And the - but the answer - but it's - deliberately, I think, his answers are unsatisfying because a death that comes at the hands of law enforcement is far more socially corrosive than a death that happens, I think, in other ways. I mean...

SANDERS: It erodes the public trust.

GLADWELL: Yes. I mean, this is something that we all know, but I don't think we spend enough time on, which is that all deaths are not equal. The death of a 25-year-old is not the same as the death of an 85-year-old. And the death of someone by something that we don't understand matters more than the death of something by something we do understand.

SANDERS: Well, this is why we're so freaked out by mass shootings because it's not the number of the deaths. It's the fact that it makes you think that it could be you at any time.

GLADWELL: Yeah. And a death by - at the hands of law enforcement is socially corrosive in a way that is, I mean, completely out of proportion to almost any other kind of death, so it really matters. And the idea that there has been this kind of breakdown between law enforcement and civilians in general but communities of color in particular...

SANDERS: That's where it began - started to break down, right? I mean, it's from the start.

GLADWELL: Yeah - struck me as being something that was deeply troubling. So that was where the book begins.

SANDERS: I want you to read a portion of the book that really lays out what I find to be the organizing thesis of it and that I found very powerful. And I want this audience to hear it.

GLADWELL: (Reading) Why write a book about a traffic stop gone awry? Because the debate spawned by that string of cases was deeply unsatisfying. One side made the discussion about racism, looking down at the case from 10,000 feet. The other side examined each detail of each case with a magnifying glass. What was the police officer like? What did he do precisely? One side saw a forest but no trees. The other side saw trees and no forest. Each side was right in its own way. Prejudice and incompetence go a long way towards expanding social dysfunction in the United States. But what do you do with either of these diagnoses aside from vowing in full earnestness to try harder next time? There are bad cops. There are biased cops. Conservatives prefer the former explanation, liberals the latter. In the end, the two sides cancelled each other out. Police officers still kill people in this country, but those deaths no longer command the news. I suspect that you may have had to pause for a moment to remember who Sandra Bland was. We put aside those controversies after a decent interval and moved on to other things. I don't want to move on to other things.



SANDERS: I've covered these stories before as a journalist - the shootings, the police interactions, the fraught relationship with black neighborhoods. And the frame for addressing each of these things when they happen is always race first. You're the first person I've seen talk about a story tied to the Black Lives Matter movement in this way that - in which the conversation is not race first.


SANDERS: What was the rationale behind that? And were you scared that some people might say, you're ignoring the elephant?

GLADWELL: So why that frame? I read a paper - an article - an essay written by a historian at Chicago named Charles Payne, and it was called "The Whole United States Is Southern!" And it is and remains one of the single most brilliant things I've ever read. And Payne is talking about the kind of Southern - the white Southern project in the era of the civil rights movement. In response to it was to shift the frame from a discussion about institutions and practices and laws to a discussion about people...

SANDERS: And the heart.

GLADWELL: The heart.

SANDERS: Are you racist?

GLADWELL: ...To personalize it.

SANDERS: Where's your racist bone?

GLADWELL: Yes - to say that we can end racism if only we all got along and we were all - if our hearts were pure, and we tried really hard. That was their response to the kind of broader argument that was making. And Payne's essay is all about how that side won, that they managed to transform the debate in this country about racism from one in which we were considering these larger structural issues to one where we were just personalizing everything. And there are so many examples of this, and they drive me up the wall. So, like, we got really upset because the governor of Virginia, a middle-aged white guy who went to a frat at wherever it was - UVA - in the '70s once wore blackface. That really, really got us upset. But, you know, we don't - we spent barely more time on voter suppression and gerrymandering, right?

SANDERS: I'm giving you snaps. I'm giving you snaps.

GLADWELL: Which matters more here, right?



GLADWELL: And I feel like I - with these - some of these police shooting cases, we were in danger of doing the same thing; that we were in danger of looking at them and saying, the officer in the Sandra Bland case is a racist. Shame on him. And that is a deeply, deeply unsatisfying conclusion. I was determined when I wrote this book that I was not going to go down the road of going in depth into whether there was darkness in the heart of Brian Encinia. You know, there doesn't - maybe there was. Maybe there wasn't. That incident could have happened in exactly the same way if Brian Encinia was the purest - if he was a member of the NAACP and married to a black woman.




GLADWELL: Because it's not ultimately about his particular attitudes towards black people. It is about a philosophy of police - a fundamentally flawed philosophy of policing of which he was the embodiment. That's the issue.

SANDERS: And I think a lot of us don't realize how the basic fundamental building blocks of policing as we know it came out of the shadows of slavery and the plantation.


SANDERS: And many of the things that we just think that police do - same kind of tactics to keep them on the field, you know what I'm saying?


SANDERS: And we don't even unpack it that far sometimes. How - this has become a very black conversation, and I love it. But I wonder - and we kind of alluded to this backstage - are you black?

GLADWELL: Am I black?


GLADWELL: Well, I'm not as black as you.


GLADWELL: But I'm - you know, what are you if your mom's black? I mean, my mom's black. But then my mom would say - my mom wouldn't say she was black. My mom would say she's West Indian. And now we're getting into a whole 'nother thing, which I don't want to go down that road because...


GLADWELL: I don't want some kind of feud breaking out between the West Indians in the audience and...


GLADWELL: But - you know, and West - I mean, and Jamaicans are very, very clear about the fact that they're Jamaicans first.


GLADWELL: And Jamaican - being Jamaican means, like, 19 different things. And, like, you know, they have their own kind of...

SANDERS: They're like the superheroes of blackness for me. Just like - yeah.

GLADWELL: They are. I'm so happy you said that.


GLADWELL: That's the sweetest thing I've ever heard. Are you finally owning up to the kind of inherent superiority of West Indians? Is that what's going on here?

SANDERS: Well, perhaps.


SANDERS: But, like - yeah.

GLADWELL: The sheer ego of Jamaicans about their kind of greatness...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

GLADWELL: ...And about how everyone else - like, I swear if you, like, talk privately to a Jamaican, they have an implicit ranking. It's like, well, Jamaica's one, and then maybe Trinidad's two...


GLADWELL: ...And then Barbados, maybe, three, African Americans four, probably. Like, you know, it's like somebody will put, maybe, Barbados second and Trinidad third...


GLADWELL: But it's like, Jamaica's, like, clearly No. 1. There's like no question.


GLADWELL: They might slip - they might have - they might slip Nigerians in, you know, because Jamaicans are effectively Nigerian, so there's that kind of commonality there. But like, yeah, the sheer kind of chauvinism of Jamaicans is an awesome thing.

SANDERS: (Laughter) But I ask is because, like, you grew up in Canada.

GLADWELL: Yeah. By the way, nothing is more Jamaican than growing up in Canada.



GLADWELL: You know, just so you know. Like, that is, like, the most Jamaican move ever, like...

SANDERS: But, like, you can probably walk through the world.


SANDERS: And half of the folks would know and half of the folks would not know. There's probably a lot of folks that read your book - if they haven't read the book where you talk about having a Jamaican mother, they don't know.

GLADWELL: Black people always know. It's white people who don't know.

SANDERS: We got that Spidey sense.

GLADWELL: White people don't know. Black people always know.

SANDERS: How do you feel about that?


SANDERS: I find it hilarious, first of all. How many of you didn't know he's black in this room? Raise your hand. Be honest.

GLADWELL: People know.

SANDERS: Mind blown.

GLADWELL: People know. And then I've done - I do things to further it. Like, I had my DNA done, and I discovered that I'm, like, you know - what is it? - 18% Ibo. So I tweet that out, and now Nigerian - I get so much Nigerian love. It's phenomenal. Like, I walk down the street like - you know, like, put me in a big hug. So yeah, there's that. But I have noticed this. Periodically, people come up to me in the street, and so I keep a tally of who is it who comes up to me in the street. And it is overwhelmingly black people and overwhelmingly black men, which I find really, really interesting.

SANDERS: The world of public intellectualism is so one kind of guy, and I tell you, when I found out that you were blackish...


SANDERS: ...I was like...


SANDERS: ...We got one in there.

GLADWELL: Blackish?

SANDERS: We got one in there.


GLADWELL: I kind of love - I guess I'm blackish.

SANDERS: You can't trademark that. That's a TV show.

GLADWELL: Yeah. No, I know that's a TV show. No one has ever called me blackish before. It's kind of great, I have to say.

SANDERS: All right, time for a break. You're listening to my live conversation with journalist, author and podcast host Malcolm Gladwell. We talked last week at Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University. When we come back, Malcolm and I are going to talk about something that is very sensitive. Some folks might want to skip ahead. We discuss rape and sexual assault on college campuses. It might be hard for some listeners. All right. We'll be right back.

The whole premise of this book is that we don't know how to talk to each other, especially strangers, but isn't that a problem that's been with us since the beginning of time? You lay out examples throughout history. Do you think it's worse now than it's ever been?

GLADWELL: Yeah, so it obviously is worse because, you know, for most of human history, you rarely encountered strangers. You lived entirely within the world of family, clan, community. And then there's a sort of shift in the modern era, where all of a sudden, you're - the world is opened up, and you confront for the first time people for whom you have no frame of reference. And I - this is really the kind of crisis that I'm describing in the book, which is that the strategies that we developed over the course of hundreds of thousands of years for dealing with people that we know really well don't work when we're dealing with people we don't know.

So the classic example would be, as human beings, we use people's body language and facial expressions as a way to interpret their emotions. And when I'm dealing with someone who I know very well, that works because I have a whole body of experience and I know all of the particular idiosyncrasies that make up your emotional presentation. So there is a story I tell in my book about - my dad hears my mother scream. He's in the shower, and he comes out of the shower naked. He's 75 years old - big, bushy beard - and my - someone has - a young man has a knife to my mother's throat. And my father - naked, 75 years old - points at the guy and says, get out now.

SANDERS: That'll do it.

GLADWELL: And the guy leaves. Now...





GLADWELL: There, he leaves for a number of reasons.


GLADWELL: One is it is unexpectedly terrifying to see a naked, 75-year-old Englishman. But two...

SANDERS: Had he been Jamaican, it could've been different, huh?

GLADWELL: The second reason is - which was given to me by - on "The Breakfast Club" by Angela Yee, who said - her explanation when I told her this story - she was like, oh, nobody wants to fight a naked man.


GLADWELL: And I was like, you know what? That's so true. You don't want to fight a naked man.

SANDERS: That is the title of your next book.

GLADWELL: I thought that was so fantastic. And so I was like, wait a minute. So if I'm in a threatening situation, I should just take off my clothes? She just said, yeah. Just take - people are just going to back up. It's just not worth it. But no. But the reason it's relevant to this is that my father was someone who emotion - negative emotions did not show on his face. So the - and so that was one of his peculiarities, and if you know my father, you would know that. You would know that when he was terrified, as he would have been in that moment, he would - there would be zero terror on his face. But the dude with the knife doesn't know that, so he sees what looks like a stone-cold killer, like, pointing at him and saying, get out, right? He's like, oh, Jesus.

SANDERS: Also nude.

GLADWELL: Runs - right. But if you don't know - so if you don't know my father, you fundamentally misinterpret him in that moment, right? So there's a classic example, and I talk about this, what I call the problem of transparency, which is, with strangers, we are reduced to the assumption that facial expressions are a authentic and reliable representation of internal emotions. And the single powerful fact about human beings is that that is not true - isn't. You know, we all think that when we are angry, our jaws drop, or when we're angry, our - you know, our brows furrow and our - and when we're surprised, our jaws drop, and our eyes grow wide. That is not the case.


GLADWELL: Like, that is a fiction...


GLADWELL: ...That is perpetuated by actors on - in Hollywood movies. But in real life, all of us have incredibly - a incredibly diverse array of ways of representing emotion. And when you don't know...

SANDERS: And we can mask them.

GLADWELL: What's that?

SANDERS: And, like, we can mask them very easily.

GLADWELL: Yes. Yes. And so when you're dealing with strangers, you're going to make mistakes. Unless you have some understanding of the context in which behavior is happening - not just the immediate context, but the historical context...


GLADWELL: ...Unless you've read your history books...


GLADWELL: ...Unless you have some appreciation for the cultural nuances of America, you cannot make sense of a stranger.

SANDERS: This - the description for this book - it's called, quote, "a challenging and controversial excursion through history, psychology and scandals." I found the controversial to be particularly true. There are some stories that you take a second look at in this book that I think a lot of folks would say, maybe don't take a second look at that 'cause we know exactly who was right and wrong. And this is bad, and that was a bad man. I'm talking specifically about the rape case that you discuss in the book. Lay out the case and why you wanted to revisit that when it seemed like a thing when I saw in the news - I was like, that's pretty simple and straightforward.


SANDERS: Lock him up, you know what I'm saying?

GLADWELL: So I was interested in conversations that go awry between strangers. And so I was thinking about, what are all the kind of relevant categories? And police stops would be one, but I also thought that campus sexual assault cases clearly belong here because they differ from - if you - so I began to read accounts of campus sexual assault cases. And in many of them...

SANDERS: And the main focus on - for this book - it's the Stanford rape case.

GLADWELL: Yeah. So I'm...

SANDERS: It was really...

GLADWELL: ...Going to get to that in a moment. But I began before that case...

SANDERS: Got you.

GLADWELL: ...Happened because many - if you read these - and there are tens of thousands of documented campus sexual assaults every year. So there's a voluminous body of these things. And if you start reading accounts, many of them begin the same way, which is, they are two - a man and a woman at a party. And they are engaged in some - the kind of thing that people are engaged in at parties - getting to know someone who you don't know.

SANDERS: Getting shwasted (ph).

GLADWELL: And then over the course of the evening, something goes badly wrong, right?


GLADWELL: So they - so I wanted to say - so I wanted to understand, OK, is there something here that we can understand and make sense of? So I began to talk to people who study these cases, and every one of them said the same thing to me, which was, well, you can't talk about these cases unless you talk about alcohol. And I heard that again and again and again and again.

And so I thought, oh, OK. So maybe I should do a chapter about drinking and its contribution to this, which led me to the most famous recent sexual assault case, which was the Stanford rape case and - where both parties are very, very drunk. So this is the case involving - at Stanford, a 19-year-old freshman named Brock Turner is discovered essentially assaulting an unconscious woman outside a frat house late one night and then is convicted and sent to jail. And it makes - there's a huge controversy over the length of his sentence.


GLADWELL: Trial is all about drinking. The issue is how much they had to drink and what the consequences of their drinking - because he was convicted of - essentially under the clause in California law, which is that if you are engaged in sexual activity with someone who is too drunk to consent, you're guilty of a crime. So the question at trial was, how drunk was Emily Doe, the victim? The trial, I think, correctly concluded that she was so drunk that she could not give consent, and that's why Brock Turner was convicted.

My - the reason I wanted to write that chapter was that when you look at the way that not everyone, but in particular, younger people, particularly people on campus, think and talk about sexual assault - they leave alcohol out of it. They want to talk about it as if alcohol was a stray, isolated fact. But when you understand precisely what on a physiological and cognitive level alcohol does to people - particularly extreme drunkenness does to people - you understand you can't do that - that you can't discuss events like that without acknowledging that - the role that alcohol plays.

So - and in particularly if you want to prevent sexual assault from happening again - and by the way, if there is one thing that we are extraordinarily blase about in this society, it is the problem of sexual assault on campus. The number of case - we're talking about tens of thousands of documented cases every year. I mean, it's - there are tens of thousands of violent assaults that are - I mean, this is a problem that is on a scale that is unimaginable. And we are presuming to try and get a handle on this problem and reduce it without acknowledging the elephant in the room, which is alcohol.

And so my chapter basically says, we need to acknowledge that if you drink to excess, you are radically increasing your chances of engaging in criminal behavior, even though you may not, while sober, be someone who is inclined to engage in criminal behavior. And on the other side of the equation, if you drink to excess, you are radically increasing your chances of being a victim of a sexual assault. That is not victim-blaming. That is an acknowledgement of the fact that you are losing control and putting yourself at the mercy of a predator. And that is you can't discuss this without acknowledging the fact that, look, if you are three times the legal limit and you are blackout drunk, you're not in control of your body and yourself and your decisions and what other people are doing to you. And if you believe that sexual assault is as big of a problem as it is, then it's crazy to do that, right? When you look at the statistics on sexual assault, you realize that a drunken frat party at midnight is not a safe place, right?

SANDERS: It's the witching hour.

GLADWELL: It is not a safe...

SANDERS: It's the witching hour.

GLADWELL: ...And you cannot pretend it is benign. It is a place where crimes occur with astonishing frequency. And so - and if you are going to be present in a place where crimes occur with astonishing frequency, do not lose control of your own cognition, A, and, B, if you're on the other side of the - more importantly on the other side, don't get so blind drunk that you turn into a criminal. It's not controversial, right?


SANDERS: Here is the thing, though - even you addressing this rape case in a book about miscommunication...


SANDERS: ...Are you worried that some people are going to say, is Malcolm Gladwell saying rape is just a problem of miscommunication? Is Malcolm Gladwell saying - like, obviously the things that you're saying, they make sense.

GLADWELL: Mmm hmm.

SANDERS: But do you anticipate the way you frame and get into this story about a rape to get pushback?

GLADWELL: No. Because I - well, will I get pushback? Probably. Am I concerned about it? No. Because I think if you read the chapter carefully and honestly, you will - it is clear that I am - that I have not crossed over. There is an argument, which I 100% reject, which is a victim-blaming argument. I am not making a victim-blaming argument. I am making a victim-preventing argument, right? I am someone - I'm coming at this in the perspective of this is a problem that is out of control, and we got to do something to bring it under control.


GLADWELL: And this is one of the things we ought to do...


GLADWELL: ...Which is moderate drinking behavior.

SANDERS: But I can hear critics saying, well, it's a slippery slope. If now we're saying, beware of the frat party at midnight, what is it next? Like, don't walk around that campus past 10. Don't take that class that has more men than women. Like...


SANDERS: ...Is it - like does it...

GLADWELL: I don't...

SANDERS: ...Like, do you worry though that...


SANDERS: ...Do you worry about that mission creep sometimes and this idea of like, could someone use these arguments? Could someone use your framing...

GLADWELL: Mmm hmm.

SANDERS: ...To victim blame, to tell...

GLADWELL: Yeah, but...

SANDERS: ...A woman to - you know?

GLADWELL: But you can't - if you want to be honest and talk about difficult subjects, you cannot be constrained by the fear that someone will misuse your arguments down the line. That path to self-censorship is more dangerous than the slippery slope. You have to have some faith in your...


GLADWELL: ...You have to have faith in your readership, and I do, that they will read what I say thoughtfully and intelligently. And by the way, I will also say that in that particular chapter, I went to enormous pains to make sure that it came out right, to the point where I must have written and rewritten it 10 times. I put together, like, basically a panel of 22-year-old women who have lived those frat parties and said, read this and tell me. Like, what is your reaction? And only when they were satisfied with what I had written did I say, I'm done, right? So it's not - I did not enter into this - I think that you run into trouble and you ought to run into trouble when you deal with complicated subjects in a cavalier fashion.


GLADWELL: This is anything but cavalier. I went in with - into this with the utmost of care and caution to make what I think is a socially necessary argument about the fact that we are treating alcohol like it's Coca-Cola, and it ain't Coca-Cola.


SANDERS: All right. One more break. You're hearing my live conversation with author and podcast host Malcolm Gladwell about his newest book, "Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don't Know." After the break, a twist on my favorite game, Who Said That? BRB.


SANDERS: OK. Hard question now.

GLADWELL: Mmm hmm?

SANDERS: You are a publishing powerhouse, and millions of people love your books and will buy them and have bought them - five New York Times bestsellers. But this weird thing has happened with your career where the bigger your books get and the more people want to actually buy them, critics of the world take more and more issue with it. And I was trying to put my finger on it, and then I was like, you know what? You're like the Taylor Swift of the book world.


SANDERS: Not in terms of, like, what the critics are saying but in terms of, like, there is no mixed opinion on Taylor Swift.


SANDERS: You either love her...


SANDERS: ...Or you hate her. That's it. And you've become that. What makes a public figure that?



GLADWELL: How do I know? I mean...

SANDERS: Because there are a lot of authors where I'm like, sure. Fine. But when you - when I was telling folks in the run-up to this interview that I'm talking to Malcolm Gladwell, let me know if you have any questions, the majority of folks were like, oh, my God, I love him. But the ones who did not love you, I'm not going to tell you what they said.


GLADWELL: There was (laughter).


GLADWELL: Yeah. The reviews of - some of them are just, like, super bad.


GLADWELL: There was one in The New York Times. Like, it literally like - it felt like the reviewer had a stomachache and was, like, blaming it on me. She was like, Malcolm Gladwell caused my tummy to...


GLADWELL: And I was like - and then it - which by the way, parenthetically, as a kid, I was always fascinated by the fact that when adults had stomachaches, they were obsessed with the notion of identifying the cause of the stomachache. Like, my dad would always have stomachaches, and he would come home and my mom would say, why do you have a stomachache? He would say, it was the onions at work or like...


GLADWELL: ...The tamale. And I was like, (unintelligible) how do you know?


GLADWELL: Like, a thousand things have happened to your stomach over the last six hours, and you're, like, sure, it was the onions at work or the tamale.


GLADWELL: Like how? But it was the same thing with my book. She was like, I have a stomachache. I am convinced it was "Talking To Strangers" that caused it. I mean, I don't lose a lot of sleep on this, as is obvious.



GLADWELL: I don't think - I mean, so here's the - well, let me say this. Do you want me to give you the Malcolm Gladwell higher theory of Malcolm Gladwell criticism?




GLADWELL: ...Over the years, I've noticed that there are two ways in which critics attack my books.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

GLADWELL: Way No. 1 is, he's stating the obvious. He just dresses up commonsense and boo. Way No. 2 is, he says outrageous, unsupportable things and supports it by cherry-picking the data. Now, the first observation is that it can't be both, right?


GLADWELL: If I'm stating the obvious, I don't need to cherry-pick the data, and if I'm cherry-picking the data, I can't be stating the obvious. But really - so that's observation No. 1...


GLADWELL: ...That there is a kind of puzzlingly large disparity between the two anti-Gladwell schools. Observation two is that often, in fact usually, both arguments are made simultaneously.


GLADWELL: And so, you know, sometimes I read these things genuinely wanting to be a better writer. What can - let's sit down and learn from the critics, Malcolm. And then I read them and I'm like - I get very puzzled because I think, well, what is it? Am I stating the obvious or am I cherry-picking the data? And I'm kind of lost.


GLADWELL: And then point No. 3 is on cherry-picking. In proof of cherry-picking, they'll say Gladwell often cherry-picks the data. For example, on Page 65, he makes a claim about...


SANDERS: But always Page 65 has 17 footnotes...

GLADWELL: No, no, no, no, no.

SANDERS: ...So I'm like, he did some homework. But go ahead.

GLADWELL: If in proof of the claim that Gladwell cherry-picks the data, you only come up with one example...


GLADWELL: ...You've cherry-picked the data, right?

SANDERS: Touche (laughter).

GLADWELL: Note to self, if you want to use the criticism cherry-pick, come up with more than one example.


GLADWELL: Otherwise...


GLADWELL: ...You're cherry-picking. So that's puzzling to me.

SANDERS: Mmm hmm.

GLADWELL: So after that, I've sort of given up, frankly.

SANDERS: Is there one story, one part of a book where looking back you're like, they were right?

GLADWELL: Well, the truth is that I don't actually believe that I am a target for a lot of criticism. My feeling is I get a lot of - a lot of love. And the critic - you know, it's very - criticism stands out. Oh, let me give you another - let me ask you a question. In order for a book...

SANDERS: You can't do that.

GLADWELL: Yes, I can.


GLADWELL: In order for a book to be successful, what percentage of readers do you think have to like it?

SANDERS: If they bought it, it don't matter.


GLADWELL: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.


GLADWELL: I'm asking a serious question. What percentage - you know, what is the threshold for a successful book in terms of percentage of readers who like it?

SANDERS: Two-thirds?

GLADWELL: OK. Let's run with that. So 66% of...


GLADWELL: You think a book is successful if 66% of readers like it.

SANDERS: Yes, sir.

GLADWELL: OK. So let's imagine that this book does really well...

SANDERS: Mmm hmm.

GLADWELL: ...Beyond my wildest dreams...

SANDERS: Mmm hmm.

GLADWELL: ...And I sell a million copies.

SANDERS: Mmm hmm.

GLADWELL: That means that 660,000 people like it and 300 and...

SANDERS: Thirty-three thousand - 666,000.

GLADWELL: ...And 333,000 people hate it.


GLADWELL: Three hundred and - I will make 340,000 enemies if my book does really, really well beyond my wildest imaginings, right?


GLADWELL: So one way to think about critics is to say, oh, my God, they're criticizing me. One - another way to think about it is, well, the more critics you have, it means the more readers you have. And if...

SANDERS: Are you saying that the haters are your motivators?



SANDERS: I love that (laughter).

GLADWELL: This is - so when I see these critics, I think that just means I'm being read by a lot of people.


GLADWELL: And there's probably two like - I mean, if I - I think my books are successful, so that means there are two people who like it for every one person who doesn't. That's a - I'll take that trade any day of the week. So it's like...


SANDERS: Yeah. Yes. If I were to critique the work, there is one thing that you've written about and brought into the consciousness that now everyone has changed their mind on, and this is policing and this idea of, like, broken-window policing. Can you explain that to the audience and then tell them if you think that flip on it is a valid one?

GLADWELL: Well, the person who's flipped on it is me.


GLADWELL: Yeah. Yeah. So in my first book, I have a chapter on broken-windows policing - the idea that by cracking down on small crimes, it sends a message to the would-be criminal population that large crimes will not be tolerated. Would I write that same chapter today? A million times no. That idea, although there is some merit to it, became a justification for some...

SANDERS: For mass incarceration, yeah.

GLADWELL: ...Some very unfortunate kinds of policing that I have been waging war against. I have been backtracking and apologizing and correcting that original position in every book since, except for "Outliers." So in "Blink" and "David And Goliath" and in this book, I am implicitly critiquing myself by trying to come to a more sophisticated understanding about what effective policing looks like and, most particularly, in what the - for every aggressive action taken by a police officer, there is both a benefit and a cost. And we have paid - in the early stages of the successful war against crime in the '90s, we paid a lot of attention to the benefits.

Recently, appropriately, we have started to pay more attention to the costs, and we've started to weigh the - I - my mistake, and it was a grave one, was, in the beginning, I got caught up in that enthusiasm for the benefits. And now I am much more - like in this book, for example, and in "David And Goliath" - I'm really zeroing in on, what happens when - with the false positives? What happens with the people who you - are swept up in this kind of aggressive policing who have done nothing wrong? And is the kind of loss of credibility and betrayal of trust that is the consequence of those false positives, what is the result of that and what's the price of that? And I think now that the price is enormous.

And that's why, in this book, I spent the last quarter of the book talking about what a thoughtful and strategic and targeted policing looks like and how that idea is strongly supported by recent research in criminology. I think that there's a really important lesson for me in that and, I think, for all writers, which is that if you are going to pick up a topic, you have a moral obligation to revisit it because it is almost certainly the case that the kind of research that you - and understanding that you used in your original presentation will change - right? - that you must be willing to revisit and change your mind when it's appropriate. And you have to - if you get criticized for your original, incorrect position, you ought to man up and take it. And I think that's part of what it means to be a public figure.


SANDERS: All right. I want to play a little game that we play on my show every week. The game is called Who Said That?


KANDI BURRUSS: Who had been saying that?

PORSHA WILLIAMS: Who said that?

KENYA MOORE: Who said that?

SANDERS: It's the most fun game. We intro it every week with this clip from "The Real Housewives Of Atlanta" saying, who said that, on a loop. It works. Trust me.


SANDERS: Anyway, in this game, usually with my journalist panelist, I will read a quote from the news of the week, and they have to guess who said that or guess the big news story that I'm referring to. So I'm going to play this game with you, but it's going to be a twist. It's going to be you against yourself. We're going to play You Said That.


SANDERS: So I have a few quotes from my favorite articles of yours back in the day. I'm going to read them, and you're going to have to remember what story it was from.


SANDERS: And tell us really quickly the conclusion you came to in that article. First quote - you ready? There's no buzzer. Just say it out. First quote - "How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like" this?


SANDERS: You wrote that.

GLADWELL: Oh. Oh, it's an article about why Heinz ketchup was the greatest ketchup in the world. Was that it?

SANDERS: Yes. Yes. Yes.


SANDERS: Summarize briefly your grand theory of ketchup v. mustard.

GLADWELL: Oh, well, that I don't remember. The only thing I remember from that article was that it involved a guy named Howard Moskowitz, who had the most extraordinary quote, which was a old Yiddish expression - to a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.


GLADWELL: Which I'm not entirely sure that I know what that means, but I love it. I just think it's fantastic.

SANDERS: This article is so good. He lays out and makes it plain why there's really, like, only, like, just one kind of ketchup but, like, 50 kinds of mustard. Read the article; he explains. All right, next quote - "You will never hear Wilco and Jay-Z on the same station, even though lots of people listen to both Wilco and Jay-Z," like me.

GLADWELL: I have no clue.

SANDERS: Really?

GLADWELL: I put Wilco and Jay-Z in the same sentence?

SANDERS: This was in an article. This was in an interview that you gave to The Guardian about a topic in one of your earlier books. It's music related.

GLADWELL: No idea.


GLADWELL: Oh, really?

SANDERS: You remember writing about Kenna?

GLADWELL: Oh, wow. Yeah, yeah. OK.


SANDERS: OK. This was one of my favorite things of Malcolm Gladwell writing. You wrote this really interesting take on why Kenna, this musician - this Ethiopian musician who was somewhat new wave, somewhat hip-hop, somewhat rap - why the industry loved him and critics loved him but he could never take off because he didn't fit in one genre. It was so good.

GLADWELL: I remember that.

SANDERS: OK. Now you remember it, OK. For the last quote, we're actually going to have you tell it to yourself.


GLADWELL: You have to landscape it, mow it, drench it in pesticides, keep the sand traps perfect.

SANDERS: You have to landscape it, mow it, drench it in pesticides, keep the sand traps perfect.

GLADWELL: Oh, that's from my thing about the golf courses of LA...

SANDERS: Yes, yes.

GLADWELL: ...And why I hate golf. Yeah, yeah, yeah.


SANDERS: Yes, yes. That one was good, too.

GLADWELL: That was a fun - that - I earned the enmity of golfers forever.

SANDERS: Really?

GLADWELL: To this day, people come up to me on the street and, like, you know, scowl at me over that particular...

SANDERS: Really?

GLADWELL: ...Episode of "Revisionist History."

SANDERS: Well, I mean, it was a takedown of the LA golf course.

GLADWELL: Well, it is - by the way, since I have a little bit of a soapbox here...


GLADWELL: ...The most absurd thing in the world - you drive through LA, and there are these giant parks, and you realize, oh, not a park. Actually...

SANDERS: Can I tell you what's actually the most absurd thing in the world?




SANDERS: Which is why I love it. But yes, it is crazy. In the most beautiful weather in the country, it's hard to find a park.

GLADWELL: Yeah, there's no park space because they're all - have big fences around them. And by the way, no one is playing golf on them.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

GLADWELL: If you peered through the fence and looked for a golfer, you can't find any. They're just fenced-off, beautiful grassy areas that theoretically could be played golf on, and they're just trying to keep people out. Like, I don't understand why - and then they give them a massive tax break to support this activity of keeping people out from the massive, beautiful green space.


GLADWELL: Like, it - there's no part of that that makes sense.


SANDERS: No part. I agree. It's a great episode. It's Season 2, Episode 1 of "Revisionist History."

GLADWELL: That - you know, what I wanted to do originally was - once you realize that the value of the land that is occupied by the private golf courses of LA is in the many, many billions of dollars, and the reason - the only reason they can continue to keep the golf courses open is they have this special tax - they basically don't pay property taxes because one year of property taxes would put the golf course out of business. So originally, my idea was not to do a podcast episode; I was going to join an exclusive, private golf course, you know, golf club in LA.


GLADWELL: And then agitate - become a public person agitating for an end to the tax exemption, which would cause the golf club to sell itself to a developer. And they would divide up the value of the course, which is in many, many hundreds of millions of dollars, equally among the members. And I would get - it was a get-rich scheme, essentially.


GLADWELL: And I was so convinced that this is, like - I was - like, it came to me one night. I was like, oh, my goodness, this is it. This is - all I had to do is come up with the cash to join one of these - or get my way in, too. I don't know how you get in. And I ran this idea past some people who were members of these exclusive clubs, and they're like, yeah, that's genius. That's a really good idea.


GLADWELL: So - and then I was like, well...

SANDERS: I'd watch that Netflix movie. I would.


GLADWELL: I worked it out, actually, that if I did it - I did the math and worked at it. If I joined LA Country Club, I think my end would have been, like, $30 million if they - if I went through with the strategy. By the way, it's open to any of you if you want it.


GLADWELL: The idea's all yours.

SANDERS: I have no grand plan for the end of this conversation.


SANDERS: But I know that they're going to drag us off stage if we don't end it. I would stay up here for hours and hours more. You have been a big part of my intellectual growth in more ways than you know - because you didn't know me.


SANDERS: But I appreciate the way you continue to make us ask questions about the things we think we already know. I value your mind, and I thank you for being here.

GLADWELL: Thank you so much.

SANDERS: Malcolm Gladwell.


SANDERS: Thanks again to Malcolm Gladwell for joining me live at Lisner Auditorium at GW in D.C. It was a blast. Malcolm's new book is called "Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don't Know." It's in bookstores now. Many thanks to the team that made that show come alive, senior creator producer Joanna Pawlowska for making this event happen and NPR's awesome engineers, Jay Sizz (ph) and Natasha Branch. Also, thanks to Brittany Kerfoot and Liz Hottel at Politics and Prose, and thanks to Dan, Izzy, Mike, Michael and J.C. at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium.

All right, now we're going to leave you with a little extra tidbit from one of Malcolm's producers. His name is Justin Richmond. I used to work with him at NPR. And he shared a very fun fact with me about Malcolm that I think y'all will also enjoy. You'll hear it right now. Till next time - back in your feeds Friday - I'm Sam Sanders. Talk soon.

JUSTIN RICHMOND: Yo. So the quirkiest thing about Malcolm that I've observed is this dude does not like AC, man. We were in the car, and it's record-breaking heat and just no AC. So with the windows down - we're cruising around Detroit - windows down. And he loves it. He's like a cat that way, I suppose. A week later, we're having a little party for Pushkin at his apartment in Manhattan, and it's a record-breaking heat again. We're hitting triple digits. And it's just windows open - that's it. No AC. I know he has AC. Malcolm, I know you have AC in that apartment (laughter). We were burning up.

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