“The Tipping Point” author Malcom Gladwell unpacks disastrous social miscues in new book “Talking to Strangers”

Malcom Gladwell

In tonal languages (e.g., Ibibio or Mandarin), slight shifts in pitch change a word’s meaning, so listening to nuance and context is essential. That comes to mind reading Malcolm Gladwell’s timely new book, “Talking to Strangers,” which analyzes consequences of disregarding context. Writing with trademark lucidity, Gladwell frames it with Sandra Bland’s 2015 suicide, presenting officer Brian Encinia’s roadside exchange with Bland as a tragic microcosm of societal misunderstandings.

“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility,” he writes. Where and when you confront a stranger is profoundly consequential, “because those two things powerfully influence your interpretation of who the stranger is.”

Historical records, case studies and court transcripts illuminate the Ferguson unrest, the Stanford rape case, and “mismatched” public figures — those whose demeanor doesn’t match their truthfulness — including Amanda Knox, whose case, in Gladwell’s hands, surprisingly reflects public character. Bernie Madoff, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, “Queen of Cuba” spy Ana Montes, and Larry Nassar also weave through his narrative, shadowed by Bland’s death.

Examining Sylvia Plath’s 1963 suicide, and Britain’s subsequent plunge in suicides after converting from “town” to natural gas, Gladwell notes that half of America’s annual suicides use handguns; what would happen if the US, like Britain, “eradicated its leading cause of suicide” by “uncoupling” potential suicides from their favored exit visa? “Those few who were determined to try again would be forced to choose from far-less-deadly options, such as overdosing on pills, which is fifty-five times less likely to result in death than using a gun … banning handguns would save 10,000 lives a year, just from thwarted suicides. That’s a lot of people.”

It’s also a volatile topic deserving attention when Gladwell speaks in Culver City on Monday.

— Bliss Bowen

Live Talks LA hosts Malcolm Gladwell discussing his book “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know” at 8 p.m. Monday (Sept. 16) in the Frost Auditorium, 4401 Elenda St., Culver City. Tickets are $55, including a signed book, at livetalksla.org