Malcom Gladwell has so impressed the reading world with his analysis of life, that the term “Gladwellian intellectual adventure” has been coined.

But though I confess to not have jumped on his bandwagon before Talking to Strangers, when I saw he had written about Sandra Bland, I had to know his thoughts.

We now go through life with cable news. And then it was July of 2015. I’m white, Black Lives DO Matter, but hearing of a Black woman who had just arrived in Texas for a new job, a new life, had been arrested for a traffic stop, and then hearing just days later, that it was assumed she had hung herself in her jail cell—I was angry, had many questions, that to this day and even beyond this book, have not been answered. Why? Because we are still living in a time when these questions challenge us to give answers we don’t want to face. 


Gladwell starts with Sandra and ends with Sandra. In between, he works to reveal the disconnects in society, by exploring, as only he can, history, psychology and the roots of evil in our society. Oh, he wants to come to some conclusion about Sandra, but before that, he explores how often we just don’t have the big picture. Why? Because we ARE often STRANGERS to each other, and that means there are no exact rules to govern human interactions.

He attacks the problem in sections: some being Default to the Truth where he exams in detail the Sandusky (sex with a child) Case. Another being Transparency which includes the Amanda Knox case and a fraternity party sex case.


But the most interesting section is Coupling,where Gladwell makes the case that often two things that go together are hard to separate. Suicide is often coupled. Suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge; Sylvia Plath and how gas was delivered to  homes before safety measures were introduced; preventive police patrolling in Kansas City, Missouri and the interrogation of Blacks. 

Gladwell concludes the coupling section with this: “There is something about the idea of coupling–of the notion that a stranger’s behavior is tightly connected to place and context–that eludes us. It leads us to misunderstand some of our greatest poets (Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton), to be indifferent to the suicidal, and to send police officers on senseless errands. (Sandra Bland.)

SANDRA BLAND Note: All parenthesis are mine. 

Then Gladwell asks, before the last chapter, when he discusses the Sandra Bland case…

“So what happens when a police officer carries that fundamental misconception– (that people are going to break laws, do wrong, especially if the are Black)–and then you add to that the problems of default to truth and transparency? (That by their very nature, police can make us feel afraid, feel wrong when we are right, liars when we are truth tellers, especially if one is a person of color) YOU GET SANDRA BLAND.”

YES, SADLY. You get that two personalities who view the world differently, should not be thrown together in a tense situation. And, unfortunately, as a reader and a human, we are left with this: “If you are blind to the ideas that underlie our mistakes with strangers—and to the institutions and practices that we construct AROUND those ideas—then all you are left with is the personal…and now Sandra Bland, who—at the end of the lengthy postmortem into that fateful traffic strop…somehow becomes the villain of the story.


Original Sketch  artist not listed




“In real life, we often wear masks to protect ourselves. And masks hide our feelings or misrepresent them to those who don’t know us well,” writes Malcom Gladwell in his latest book: Talking With Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We don’t Know. He cites the research of Timothy Levine who concludes: that evolution has conditioned us to assume that everyone is telling the truth unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Calling this penchant “default to truth,” that’s why Bernie Madoff fooled so many people for so long, and why Larry Nasser, the doctor convicted of sexually abusing young female gymnasts, was able to do so for so many years. It also supports why when a woman asks her spouse if he has been unfaithful and he offers a reasonable denial, she immediately wants to believe he’s telling the truth. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Gladwell states: “That’s just how we’re built…and one reason our society functions is that that’s our baseline—we take for granted that the person we’re talking to is being honest.”

Maybe that baseline is currently being eroded.


In his book, Gladwell writes about the “Friendsfallacy,” that we grew up watching sitcoms that show characters reflecting exactly their feelings through facial expressions. “If you turn off the sound in an episode of Friends, you can still know precisely what’s going on. When Monica’s angry, she looks angry. When Ross is perplexed, that’s how he appears…I had a psychologist who studies facial expressions analyze an episode and break it down for me. …She concluded that the entire cast is able to signal a complex set of feelings on their faces alone…but in real life, we often wear masks, hide our feelings to mispresent them to those who don’t know us well.”


In her interview with Gladwell, Oprah states that she concluded after reading his book that: “If we were willing to engage in some soul-searching about how we approach and make sense of strangers—Sandra Bland would not have ended up dead in a Texas jail cell.”

Gladwell states that yes, Bland is the frame for the book, that something about her case haunted him (as it does me). Gladwell states:

It was 2015. Bland is a politically aware person who had some difficulties in Chicago, but is about to start her life over after getting a new job in a lovely college town in a different state. She’s leaving the campus to buy groceries when a police officer sees her and makes a judgment—that there’s something funny about her. So, he trumps up an excuse to pull her over, saying that she failed to use her blinker when she pulled to the right. When he tells her that, she says she was hurrying to get out of his way and then lights a cigarette (probably because she’s nervous, a black woman pulled over by a white Texas cop). Then everything falls apart. He tells her to put it out. She asks, “Why do I have to put out my cigarette?” He then tries to drag her out of the car, handcuffs her. It’s all on camera. He has her put in jail where she hangs herself three days later.


When we interact with strangers, Gladwell states that we are making assumptions on both sides that can lead to interactions that run amok. Whenever we meet a stranger and are starting a conversation, we are making assumptions about that person based on our own unconscious biases.

Gladwell states: When I see you, I observe your demeanor. Your face. Your expressions. Your body language. And I draw conclusions. My assumption is that the way you represent your emotions on your face and your body language is consistent with the way you are feeling.

But in the real world, those things don’t always match. In Sandra Bland’s case, she was justifiably annoyed at being stopped for no reason. And she got nervous, but that came across to the officer as something suspicious. He wasn’t reading her behavior as nervousness.

From my own research online, I learned that the traffic stop escalated, the cop threatened her with a taser and she ended up on the ground where she shouted that she hit her head. The cop, Encinia, claimed that she kicked him and booked her on suspicion of assaulting a police officer.  

When I first heard about Sandra Bland’s arrest and saw the video, I was outraged. Later, when I heard that after three days in jail, she gave up and killed herself, I was even more outraged. Where was the legal help that she needed? Did this situation escalate so quickly because Sandra Bland was black? Did someone threaten her? Was it a suicide? Maybe Gladwell has some of these answers.


The first encounter occurred in a shopping mall south of Chicago. I was driving too fast on the roadway within the mall that circled the stores. A cop pulled me over, asked for my license and as usual walked back to his car. I picked up my cell phone and called my husband. When the cop returned to the car momentarily, he screamed at me to get off the phone. Once again, yes there are rules, but rules can be explained without screaming. Is it necessary to uphold the law by using what I consider “fear” tactics? Was I truly a threat to this man with a gun?

The second encounter occurred in my south suburban Chicago neighborhood, when I bounded out of my car because I witnessed a kindergarten child fall from the top of the swing set. Yes, he should not have been climbing up it—but children do those things. My mistake: I left my car running. The officer just happened to be turning into that street, pulled up behind me and started to write the ticket. When I was able to leave the child and return to my car and found him, I explained first that I wasn’t aware I was breaking the law and second that I had a good reason to leave my car running, though it was in PARK. He would hear none of it.

Once in Des Moines, when a cop motioned me to pull into a parking lot, I got out of my car and walked back to discover what the problem was. I was friendly, just confused. He yelled at me to get back in my car. He had pulled me over because the sticker on my license was not up to date.

I don’t do well with any of this. Maybe it’s just me.


Gladwell’s books have always covered intriguing topics: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers. For me, this one is the most intriguing of all.