60 Minutes | Authors

My books help people make sense of the world: Malcolm Gladwell

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

The Canadian writer and journalist says that he sees his role as trying to explain both sides of a debate

In many ways, Malcolm Gladwell is the Francis Bacon of our era. His prose is aphoristic, he distils the complex into the simple, and his narratives are distinctively preachy. His books are sold in millions, and they get cleverly and suitably clubbed under myriad genres — from self-help to pop psychology, business strategy, science and sociology to leadership and even allegories. As if on cue, Gladwell wears many hats as a writer. His latest book, Talking to Strangers, is quintessential Gladwell. It creatively and positively trivialises humanity’s complex problems in order to derive lessons that can offer readers provocative insights. Talking from London over the phone, Gladwell speaks about the book and beyond. Excerpts:

Why was it important now to write about talking to strangers?

This is one of the dominant facts about the modern world. Twenty years ago, we would not be having this conversation. Twenty years ago, books by Canadians may have been sold, but they weren’t selling many copies in India and we wouldn’t be having a conversation over mobile phone this easily with a connection this good. There are all kinds of reasons why typically strangers like us would never have met, but now we meet all the time. That’s a central fact of a connected world. And the issue is, are we any good at this kind of communication? For instance, there is a world of difference between you interviewing an Indian author face-to-face and you talking to a Canadian author over the phone.

But doesn’t a connected world make it easier for strangers to know each other?

Yes, today you can dig up the past of strangers from their social media profiles. But my book is really concerned with personal communication, and understanding its nuances and subtleties. It is so easy for meaning to be lost when I’m unfamiliar with your background, your culture, the assumptions you’re bringing. I talk a lot in the book about what it means to interpret facial expressions. All of us, every day, are forced to use facial expressions and body language to interpret someone’s emotional state. If I know you very well, I can do that. I can do that with some degree of accuracy. If I don’t know you at all, it’s really hard and we make mistakes.

In the book, I tell the story of Amanda Knox (who was first convicted and then acquitted in the murder of her British roommate). That’s as much a cross-cultural misunderstanding as anything. Such problems will only be magnified if we don’t learn to understand strangers.

In a book about talking to strangers, it is highly unlikely you’ll meet characters like Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. How did this book come along?

When I write books, I start with a single story that I think is powerful and has depth and meaning and I build from there. So I begin with (the death of) Sandra Bland not just because I thought that story was moving and tragic and fascinating, but because I thought it had layers. It is the kind of story you could think about and investigate on a number of levels. And that’s what I’m always looking for in a book; stories I can tell and that allow me to take a step back and examine from a number of perspectives.

Many say your books blend self-help and pop psychology. Are you a self-help writer?

Well, it’s funny. I suppose I am in a certain way. Although it’s not; it’s a different kind of self-help in this book. Normally, in self-help books, people end with, say, 10 rules you make sense of, and I don’t do that at all. Perhaps mine are a little more complicated. My books try to explain social processes. Any book that does that is basically a self-help book, right? It’s that way to help people make sense of the world.

That’s why reviewers say you bring “intellectual sparkle to everyday subjects”. Is this a deliberate approach?

Yeah, it’s deliberate. I’ve often observed that people are experience-rich and theory-poor. All of us have an enormous wealth of stories and experiences. But what we lack is the means to make sense of all that, to organise it, to understand it and to comprehend it. My books are addressing that. I’m not telling you facts you didn’t know before. You’ve all been in situations I’m describing. What I’m doing is saying, here’s a way of organising your thoughts.

Is that why your narratives sound apolitical? Critics say you ignore politics altogether in your writings.

I feel like there are enough books about politics. I always joke that my book was the only American book published in 2019 that did not mention Donald Trump. I don’t think the world needs more on Trump and Brexit and Modi and whoever else. So I have deliberately steered clear of that. And also, I think politics has become so divisive. The minute you mention politics, people take sides and they’re not listening to what you’re saying any more. And they’re distracted. I’m going to talk about other things and leave politics to the politicians. We forget in these politically charged moments just how much there is outside of politics, and I’m not someone who has terribly trusted in politics anyway, so it’s never been hard for me to be apolitical.

You’ve said you want to get people to take human psychology seriously and to respect the complexity of human behaviour and motivations. Since when have you been interested in writing about people and their inner workings?

I’ve always been kind of curious about people’s motivations. When I began to read a lot in academic psychology in my 20s, I became fascinated by the mountain of work that had been done by some very brilliant people. A lot of my reading is about the specifics of human interaction. As someone who is an immigrant many times over, I’m always in the situation of observing things that are certainly unfamiliar to me. And that’s a good jumping off point for this kind of writing.

Who are the writers that have influenced your writing?

Richard Nisbett has been tremendously influential in the world of psychology and also on my thinking, and he’s someone who has a great theme.... to investigate the ways in which our environment, our situation, influence our behaviour.

Your writing style is pedagogical.

The role of the journalist is to be the observer; the curious observer. As a journalist, that comes very naturally too. As I said, I’m not someone who’s taking sides in debates. I’m trying to explain debates. So you’re not going to participate directly in them. I kind of try to help people understand both sides. That’s the natural position to be in.

Your writing reminds me of Truman Capote. Is he a favourite of yours?

Yes! I’m glad you found that out.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 4:01:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/my-books-help-people-make-sense-of-the-world-malcolm-gladwell/article30879625.ece

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