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Talking to Strangers | Malcolm Gladwell

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

"Talking to Strangers" is a book by Malcolm Gladwell that explores the challenges of understanding and interacting with people whose perspectives and backgrounds are different from our own. The book examines two main puzzles: why we are often unable to tell when someone is lying to us and why meeting a stranger can make it harder to understand them. Gladwell argues that we often rely on a default assumption that people are trustworthy and honest, and that this assumption can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications. He also suggests that context and power dynamics play a significant role in interactions with strangers and that the best way to understand strangers is often to have less personal interaction with them. Overall, the book examines the ways in which we interpret and make sense of strangers and the many factors that can influence those interactions.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of multiple best-selling books, including "Outliers", "Blink", "The Tipping Point", and his latest book "Talking to Strangers", is discussing his involvement in the ongoing scandal at Penn State. He states that he wrote the book "Talking to Strangers" because he was emotionally affected by the death of Sandra Bland, a young woman who died in police custody after an altercation with a police officer. He argues that many high-profile cases in recent years involve a failure to understand one another and that the Penn State scandal is an example of this problem. Gladwell believes that Joe Paterno, the former head coach of Penn State's football team, was treated unjustly in the scandal and that his reputation needs to be restored. He also argues that the prosecution of Spanier, the former President of Penn State, and his two top aides was unjust and that they are victims in this case. Finally, Gladwell states that he has no clear understanding of the case of Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach of Penn State's football team who was convicted of child sexual abuse, and that the case is shrouded in doubt and mystery.


Malcolm Gladwell talks about ongoing scandal at Penn State - YouTube


(00:00) joining us now is noted intellectual filmmaker podcaster and the author of numerous best-selling books including outliers blink the tipping point and his brand-new book talking to strangers Malcolm Gladwell welcome to the podcast Thank You Malcolm before we discuss my small involvement in talking to strangers in the topic to which I've devoted most of the last eight years of my life tell us about talking to strangers and how you chose the vastly different subject matter for the many chapters in your book well I wanted to I

(00:33) was I wrote the book because I was emotionally affected moved by the death of Sandra bland she was the most one of those series of high-profile cases in 2014 2015 2016 involving police and african-americans and she's the woman young woman who was pulled over by the side of the road in Texas small town in Texas and cut a new arguing with a police officer and within three days she was dead in her cell and I you know the whole exchange was captured on audio and I just must have listened to it you know a dozen times and just was struck

(01:17) overwhelmingly by how it was an example of kind of tragic miscommunication between two people who didn't know each other and then I realized that a lot of the high-profile cases that we have been concerned with in our society in recent years are about the same fundamental problem the two people from very different worlds have an encounter and failed to see the truth about each other or understand each other and so I thought I'd write a book about that and that's so that led me to all manner of different examples of I'm Amanda Knox to

(01:55) Bernie Madoff to the Stanford rape case and to the one I suspect we'll be talking about on this show well you suspect correctly Malcolm what made you decide that this was a topic which warranted revisiting all these years later well you know I I had written about it in a very preliminary way for the New Yorker some years back and and that was in and I had just been struck by how unexpectedly complicated the case was and then um so it was in the back of my mind and it did it did very much seem to fall into this pattern that I was be an

(02:46) example of this pattern I was interested in which is how difficult it is to understand another's intentions motivation you know that it's really really really really hard to read people we don't know well and we make mistakes and so that I thought well maybe I should go back and we examine this because I like I said I done a relatively cursory examination of it the first time around when I wrote for The New Yorker and and so I in you know I went back and descended into the you know I miss rabbit hole that is now

(03:28) you're not sure what the heck happened is that a fair analysis of your evolution of thought on this yeah there's layers as you know there are many many layers to this case and layer number one is joe paterno okay and that it's like I don't care what side of this argument you're on there's no way Joe Paterno belongs in this conversation he was you know told about the incident in the shower and he immediately referred it to his superiors as he is supposed to do so I don't I always even before I knew any about this case I

(04:10) was baffled as to why people were piling on Paterno so that's Lehrer number one and that strikes me as being that ought to be obvious and everyone ought to agree that Paterno was treated shamefully in the course of all of this and he's good-day needs to be restored layer number two is Spanier and his two top aides that's a little more complicated and that originally I wasn't sure how I felt now as a result of writing this book I am absolutely of the opinion that no member of the Penn State leadership

(04:51) deserve the treatment they got they should never have been tried that did the the prosecutors in the case behaved abominably with respect to them I don't know what on earth they were supposed to have done I mean so I now feel like and I focus on Spanier in my chapter I think Spanier is is now is as much a victim as to a Paterno is he's an honest decent man who behaved the way we want a leaders to behave and I am ashamed to be part of a society that tried to put him behind bars so that I'm absolutely clear

(05:31) on level three is Sandusky I have no clue no clue about that case my whole argument in my book is that this is a case shrouded in doubt it is not this it is it is the polar opposite of the Larry Nasser case Larry Nasser and Sandusky are on the surface they appear very similar right right pedophiles operating in a university context for years and years and years without being identified by our without being identified by the administration or law enforcement they're totally different there was the the victims of

(06:12) Larry Nasser from the moment they were victimized were going to their parents and saying I was victimized they were going to their coaches they were going to anyone who would listen I was victimized and nobody would listen right they would make contemporaneous they would tell people and it happened they would enter it they would write entries in their journal thing about what happened I mean that case the to the extent they are a doubt there are doubts in the people the people who were being told were listening to

(06:41) the victims decided that they didn't either didn't believe them or right right in this case this case is totally different this case is a mess this case is like shrouded in all manner of mystery and the ink up to and including the num the most important witness in the whole case which is mike mccurry who and if your data is correct and i believe that it is he saw something in the shower and spent weeks thinking about it that is consistent with someone who isn't sure about what he saw and mccurry himself says i wasn't sure about

(07:20) what I saw right his words were twisted by the prosecution in a way that I found so egregious as you did to that he fat thought mulled it over and didn't know what he thought and went home and told his father and his father's best friend and they didn't know what to think about it either you know they to the doctor drain off has a has a legal responsibility to report cases of child abuse that come to his attention as a medical doctor he did not write why because he also wasn't sure about what had happened this is a

(07:58) case where they were there was a mountain of doubt now that does not mean where you and I differ is that you you come down you say this mountain of doubt your interpretation is that Sandusky is innocent my position is I don't know but for the moment I don't think that matters I think that the crucial thing here is to communicate to the general public but this thing is murky and even the guy at the very center of it McCreary saw something and and was toe uncertain about what he saw that at the very least he took a month and a half to

(08:32) telling someone in a position of authority at penn state about it that is you know the kids I give that I have another chapter in my book on the Penn State funny on the Stanford read case the that case was discovered by two grad students are bicycling across Stanford campus at midnight and they see a couple on the ground and they think they're just making out and they get a little closer and they realized that the girl isn't moving and the guy is and that's all it takes they run out to the cut they tackle them

(09:10) right and they call the cops instantly right McQueary does none of that the query does none of that he goes upstairs calls his dad and goes home and Spence and then wait six weeks to tell his boss so this case is hard it is not open and shut it's not Larry Nasser it is something it's his own animal and I think that's evidence of something larger here which is that these kinds of cases in general this was something that our ability as human beings to see the truth about strangers others is is it's

(09:52) far from perfect I'm curious I know you've got space considerations and it's a short chapter and you did an incredible amount of research for a short chapter but why did you leave out the part about a job opening the day before he just happens to go see the guy who could give him the job uh I'm an interesting question you know there's a I felt that I had given my readers enough information enough evidence what I was trying to do was to prove the case is hard and shrouded in doubt and I felt

(10:28) that I had done that efficiently by that point also I I and maybe this is the sense in which you mean it I'm not sure I mean my interpretation of that I think that's a it is an interesting fact is you know this is incredibly awkward the subject of if you're going to accuse someone who is of Sandusky's stature in Penn State right of something this this strange and unusual and upsetting and you know it must have tormented McQueary and I don't think that psychologically and emotionally he could go to Joe Paterno

(11:13) and tell the story if that's the only reason for his visit what I imagine happened is he's like oh now I have an excuse to go and see Joe for something else they talked about the job opening he says they want the job opening and then he goes I imagine at the end of the conversation Oh Joe there's some one other thing I want to talk to you about that's been on my mind for a while it's super upsetting weird thing I haven't you know I don't want to you know I feel like he needed my psychological reading

(11:42) it is this kid everything I read about McCreary's just to me that he was torn up about this five different ways he honestly did not know what to do or think he saw something that upset him but was sufficiently ambiguous that he didn't do anything at the time and then I honestly thought I mean I think he must have lost week asleep okay and then why did he miss the Miss remember the date the month in the year of the episode Malcolm he does you know so honest in a certain there's a it's worth I think thinking about all the possible

(12:21) scenarios here so certain things he does clearly remember the campus was deserted so that's an important part of so he's not it's not like this thing there are certain facts about that evening that are are seared into his memory the campus is deserted he sees something that upsets them he runs upstairs he calls his dad he comes home he sees talks to dad and drain off everyone's in agreement is that absolutely happened so this is consistent with our understanding of memory that we might get the big emotional from the

(12:58) standpoint of if we if we want to personalize someone's memory from the standpoint of his memory what matters is the emotions he felt and the actions he took what doesn't matter is the date so the same thing with Brian Williams his memory is true of that famous incident where he says he was part of a helicopter that got shot down and he wasn't it was a telecom behind but his helicopter did come under fire and what his memory the emotional truth of his memory was that he was secured out of his mind right that's

(13:31) what he remembers so later he says oh I was scared of my mind that must have meant that we were shot down in fact no it just meant that he was kid out of his mind and he was shot fat yes those are the tricks our memory play on us so I don't I that's why I I'm so ready to believe your argument that it's December 29th because I don't think there's any reason that we first of all McCurry clearly demonstrated he couldn't remember what day it wasn't in the first place but there's no reason for us to

(14:02) hang all of this on the memory of the query in this case he remembered what he needed to remember which was that he was very upset okay the second thing that's interesting though here is that he and this is again stuff I know from your reporting you know he was the prosecution really did a number on the query right they ran they took his story and misinterpreted it in right and you know there's a scenario here where they they come up with the February date in his god he knows you know what that probably that can't be right but he's

(14:40) like what choice do I have at this point oh he's locked in he's locked in he's locked in so I mean there's a version of this where right now McCurry is walking around saying you know I I don't know when it was but I don't think it was February but I don't well you couldn't even he couldn't even he tries to say you've totally misrepresented my testimony and does he ever say that publicly no you he says it in a private email right right the kid I have incredible sympathy from a career I mean

(15:08) if he's been tortured about this for years and years and years now he has of what seems like independent confirmation that his worst suspicions may have been true so yeah I mean I think in the way that works the cops coming to him with a kind of predetermined conclusion to what he saw allows him to allow them to say yeah okay I think that's the way it worked it allows him to allay some of his some of his doubts music a lot of this is the bottom line on this case is that there you know we like to pretend when we

(15:47) reconstruct narratives about events like this that they're clean and tidy and easy to interpret and you know this this case is fundamentally proof of how the opposite is true that right a lot of these things are unbelievably complicated at the end of my book I say that we need to be humble and cautious humble in our cautious in our how quickly we come to conclusions and humble in the number of conclusions that we are willing to come to about strangers and I think this applies here like like I said my my focus is really

(16:26) on the Penn State Administration that we were way way way way too quick to come to judgment about about the Penn State leadership on this and and on Joe Paterno and in way too quick to kind of think of Macquarie's evidence as this kind of cut and dried testimony when in fact not right I mean well the chapter II not the chapter of your book is entitled to boy in the shower so let's talk about the boy in the shower briefly you are the first mainstream writer outlet to actually name the boy how amazing to you Malcolm is it that this

(17:14) entire case that all these people got destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars lost probably the biggest sports scandal of the century so far it might not even be close and the the epicenter of the whole thing has it has it up as a situation where no one testified at trial as the victim and the prosecution told the jury that the identity of that person was known only to God which was a lie because they knew was Alan Myers they didn't they just didn't like his story how amazing it is it to you that that not only happened

(17:54) but that the news media showed zero curiosity about wait a minute where's the boy in the shower this is the most highly publicized case of alleged child molestation in American history there's millions of dollars on the table for whoever comes forward it only happened ten years ago where's the kid how amazed are you at that set of circumstances yeah yeah you know it's bizarre how come so guy comes forward says I was the boy in the shower and he never testified at the trial like just because the

(18:30) prosecution didn't like us no you're right that's weird how do you how do you prosecute Penn State leadership for endangering the welfare of a child when you don't know who the child is right well I mean the whole thing is kind of bizarre the specific case which leads to the conviction of the Penn State leadership was this case right in the beginning right and yet this case is somehow without a victim and I think you're right as well like the kid where's the kid if it's not Myers who is it you would think it would

(19:10) be incumbent on the prosecution to have a good answer to that and their answer this is just another way I just think there are two things two conclusions I have on this and you probably have much stronger one is like I said I thought the prosecution behaved egregiously in this case and continues to behave egregiously they are still holding out the threat of criminal proceedings like over the head of Graham Spanier that is you know outrageous it is outrageous there continue to hound a 100 leaper 1% perfectly innocent man in this

(19:47) case who did absolutely nothing wrong who was a who was as fine and brilliant and and honest and courageous the president the UN state has ever had the state of Pennsylvania continues threaten him with that's how a just number one but till the other thing is man did Sandusky have some bad legal representation I mean good Lord like you know like I said i am i should say once again i do not i do not have an opinion i didn't find this case so confusing i i do not have an opinion on his guilt or innocence but I do know this I hope if I

(20:25) ever get in trouble I have a better lawyer than he did it's like where you know you've got to agree with me on that like oh yeah I'm on no no I defended joy Mandela's attorney for a while because I think he's a decent guy who was incredibly overwhelmed under uniquely bad circumstances I mean the trial was seven months after Joe Paterno gets fired the entire community is being accused of enabling a child molester they are invested in in his conviction Penn State is invested in his conviction

(20:54) everybody is I mean Louis Freeh is chomping at the bit for his conviction so that you can come out with the free report which will vindicate the Penn State Board of Trustees the NCAA is thirsting for free to come out so that they can punish Penn State football the timing of this is all incredibly suspicious because it all gets done just in time for the next football season but let me tell you a story a very very small story what I did my particle then for The New Yorker on the Penn State case years ago on Sandusky case I got

(21:23) into an email exchange with a reporter for Deadspin support covering the case for Desmond yeah and he really really really really really disliked my New Yorker piece right and like she's in a very nice email because I was trying to engage him in a conversation I said you know uh if you believe if you're looking for people if you believe this son dusty is a child molester and you're looking for people to blame why does no one mention there was a in that first case of the kid who showered with Sandusky

(21:58) you know where the case was investigated in Sandusky was cleared 1990 1990 in so-called victim number six who whose testimony sounds like he's a defense witness by the way but go ahead yeah that kids case is reviewed by a number of colleges and with Child Protective Services and I believe can't remember exactly and I think to said they thought it was nothing and one of the people said that she saw send us she interprets Sandusky's behavior as that a classic example of a paedophile grooming a potential victim mm-hmm

(22:37) if you are that woman and you are presumably an expert in this issue and you come to the conclusion that a prominent member of the Penn State community is grooming victims for child molestation and you you deal with the case and it goes away why do you never say anything my I what I didn't understand was why people were so upset for with Joe Paterno even though Joe Paterno did exactly what he was supposed to do turn those over the case to his superiors and Joe Paterno not he's a football coach he is not an expert in

(23:14) pedophilia right you know what that is that is about as far from his area of expertise so you're really upset about the guy who has no formal training whatsoever in at in this area even though he does the right thing you're not upset at all with the expert in this okay but Malkin but Malcolm Deadspin only gets traffic if it's attacking Joe Paterno because he's a say no I know what I tried to bring this up with him in email wrote him a long very nice thoughtful email actually wish I just said what about her why why don't we

(23:47) talk about why didn't anyone go and talk to her ask her why she'd ever said anything and I never heard back of course not and I think I know who you were talking to because I think I've had similar exchanges with the same person I have to say I had a very dim view of the news media before this case I now have a view of the news media that is so low it can't get any lower because some of the things that I have seen and experienced are just horrific and and incredibly depressing but I don't have enough time left in our

(24:17) interview to get into that specifically I do want to ask you Malcolm you say one more thing before you yeah on this very point part of the problem is they're so you know you and I are two people who there is a long list of things that we agree upon and along with the things that we disagree upon you know I know what the kinds of things you've reported on the have in the past you know the kinds of things I talked about we had some political differences but I don't believe that political or ideological

(24:48) differences should prevent people from having conversations sharing information and coming to conclusions or learning something about some new issue right amen amen neither here nor there like I don't require that everyone that I collaborate with learn from we do anything with is someone with whom I agree with on all points you know I happen to love Barack Obama I suspect you don't but well actually I used I used to dislike Barack Obama but now I'm not so not so bad I'm gonna consider you know we currently have but

(25:30) are in our limit in our remaining moments Malcolm you got a bunch of things I want to get to real quick you say in your chapter that I make some very good points about the case against Sandusky being very flawed but that you can't come to my conclusion that he is innocent you've said in this interview that you don't know yes you say that some of my arguments are convincing others are not forget really convincing can you can you give me an example of an argument I've made that you found to be

(26:02) fatally flawed or not convincing or or just not very good no well it's not a specific argument it's simply this that and that I I think I was phrase it a little differently actually upon reflection oh good I have a lot more respect for Texas Robert concern about the complications of the kind of emotional and psychological complications surrounding sexual abuse so I would say there is a scenario that I could believe that could explain why it was so hard to get people to come forward and say they were victims of of

(26:52) of Sandusky in other words so I get that too I absolutely understand that I do yeah and so you know is a part of me that says you know in a in you know in a relatively conservative community in in western Pennsylvania for a young [Music] emotionally you know a young kid from maybe an emotionally troubled background to stand up and admit that he was molested as a 14 year old is going to be really really hard and again if that could explain why nobody would okay I know you get that but yeah well but here's here's the thing Malcolm and and

(27:35) I know you I have incredible respect for what you've done here and your intellect and your your courage in your in your thinking but I fret I don't think that you are looking at this in in the normal way that you would in it with all due respect because this is the only case I can think of where the cover-up was quote-unquote proven before the crime was Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier were fired Tim Curley and Gary Schultz were essentially fired they were indicted in the public mindset in the media narrative we proven a cover-up before

(28:12) Jerry Sandusky even goes to trial you have said there was no cover-up you've you have defended Joe Paterno and the administrators if there's no cover-up and and this was a crime that was based based its foundation was the only way this happened was because Penn State some for some bizarre reason no one can explain decided to protect a former assistant coach for these horrific crimes no one can ever make that make any sense to me but if the cover-up did not happen and the core issue the core witness that the pillar

(28:49) of the case Mike McQueary is not reliable then how can you have any faith in anything that follows analogy I use is it's like saying you know what I agree that when it comes to the North Pole that reindeer can't fly and that elves aren't really making toys for Santa but Santa still is real and Santa still does come to everyone's house on Christmas even leave gifts that doesn't make any sense Malcolm uh well yeah I can't take that final step I don't there I don't know I mean I there

(29:29) is still no there is a scenario in my mind where that said that something happened between between Sandusky and these boys and that it was took a long time to come to light and I mean let me back up and say didn't this here in my podcast I interviewed this guy who was a an expert in police shootings and he walked me through a particular he's done he's investigated hundreds of police shootings a conservative guy by the way um and he was walking me through this one case and I did the whole episode

(30:07) about this one case he said this thing to me that I will even to try to never forget and he said Malcolm always remember this when it comes to these kinds of cases every case is different in other words you have to be willing when you examine a case to start from scratch and put aside all of your preconceptions about how they typically unfold and I think that is way more true for the other side in this case because I think everyone what happened with this case is that everyone said oh this is a child molestation case so this is the way it

(30:43) ought to unfold right it it ought to have a cover-up it ought to have all kinds of you know victims it should be easy you know but and but also I think it's too on the side that's a little more skeptical we can't you know it is entirely possible that this happened it's just a weird do you know Malcolm and look I know I'm not trying to put you on the spot and you know my respect for you and I know the toxicity of this case more than anybody but do you not agree that the actions of Paterno and the three

(31:19) administrators that you have defended make a hell of a lot more sense if Sandusky is innocent then if he is one of the worst pedophiles in the history of Pennsylvania would you agree from an ox UM's razor perspective that everything fits better under the first scenario than the second do you agree with that you do agree with that don't you think of them as separate I think of like oh I do understand you know no I draw a line between Sandusky everybody else like I've told you there's Lehrer level number one is Paterno did zero

(31:53) wrong level number two is if you look a little harder the case against the leadership Spanier in the leadership Curley and Schultz Spanier makes no sense level number three I don't know what as much as you know it you have convinced me that this is one hell of a difficult case have but I cannot I wrote a book called talking to strangers about how it's impossible to see them as our hearts of strangers I cannot see into the hardest of Jerry Sandusky I I admire what you have done and I I would encourage others to read through it and

(32:28) reach their own conclusions I think that you have if we come out of this case by saying it's an incredibly difficult case and we should never have treated Spanier curly Schultz and Paterno the way we did I think you have one do you grow do you agree Malcolm that all of the environmental elements of a perfect storm causing a moral panic and a media rush to judgment regardless of whether Sandusky is actually guilty do you agree that those elements did exist to at least theoretically explain how an injustice of this magnitude could

(33:04) occur do you agree with that okay I've just been talking about Paterno Curley Schultz and Spanier were the victims of a moral panic I mean they're like like that's exactly what happened with them like it's crazy like you get so worked up about this that you decide you want to you want to poll do you want to drag down the whole house and the ends heat up the n-c-double-a I mean we could you and I could spend another two hours talking about the complete absurdity of the governing body of intercollegiate

(33:37) athletics punishing Penn State because of the conduct of a retired employee of the football team I mean she's bananas as if what does this have to do with football I mean it clearly has nothing to do with football that it was something far more consequential which is you know whatever lies in the heart of of Jerry Sandusky so like there are the ideas that they with a straight face the NC to a could have jumped into this case and the Louis Freeh report I mean that's another hole right I like right like pilot crap absolutely Malcolm last

(34:13) question because I know you gotta go and you you said already in this interview that you are confident that over time others in the media will revisit this case I don't agree with that although I think you writing a chapter in your book is an opportunity for that to happen why are you more optimistic about that than I am and are you willing to do anything to try to help in that happening we're here I've I mean I I'm gonna talk about this case in and your work when it comes up on my book tour

(34:48) and I bring the book which will be read by many people already I've heard from people who have read early versions of the book and there are a hell of a lot more skeptical about this case I think than they were going in but uh I mean I'm honest because I feel like over time there is an inevitable I feel like the truth surfaces over a common sense over time services sometimes it takes a little longer than other times but and unfortunately and people who are in the vanguard of that process of helping common film surface pay a price you've

(35:27) totally paid a price but I think you're going to live to see to feel some measure of indication like I say if although this is simply that people come up to curly Schultz in Spanier and say you were done a terrible disservice we are profoundly sorry I I think I think you would have won I think you need to take that as victory well I haven't had very many victories over the last eight years Malcolm but I have to say your book is at least a small one and as you say a measure of indication and I and I thank you very much for having the

(36:06) courage to at least take an honest look at this please make sure the listeners that you you read talking to strangers Malcolm thanks so much for your time and let's please keep in touch great thanks John


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