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Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

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Malcolm Gladwell, Heather Reisman

How do we know what we know? And how can our judgment and gut feeling mislead us so profoundly? In this riveting discussion with Indigo founder Heather Reisman, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the findings from his latest bestselling book.

Transcript of the video:

Tiff Macklem: Good morning. Welcome. My name is Tiff Macklem. I have the great privilege of being the Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and a very warm early morning welcome to everyone. Thank you for coming.

As we get started this morning we wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently the Mississaugas of the Credit River.

Today this meeting place is still home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island, and we are grateful for the opportunity to work on this land.

This morning we’re putting two outstanding Canadians to work on this land. And it is my great pleasure to welcome and introduce them. The really need no introduction. This is Malcolm Gladwell’s fifth speaking at Rotman event since 2008, and all of us at Rotman and the University of Toronto are thrilled you keep coming back, Malcolm.

Last month Little, Brown and Company published Malcolm’s sixth book titled Talking to Strangers; What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. It’s fantastic. All of you were handed a copy when you came in. And I can tell you it’s already zoomed to the bestseller’s list.

Malcolm is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David & Goliath. He is the host of the podcast Revisionist History, and is a staff writer for the New Yorker. Malcolm was named one of the hundred most influential people by Time Magazine, and is one of foreign policies Top 10 Global Thinkers. Previously, he was a reporter at Washington Post where he covered business and science, and then served as the newspaper’s New York City bureau chief.

Malcolm was born in England and grew up in rural Ontario. But the most important thing you need to know about Malcolm is that he is a graduate of the University of Toronto. He went to Trinity College and graduated with a degree in history


In 2011, the University awarded him Doctor of Letters, honoris causa to recognize the global impact that his work has had on how people think about the social sphere and human potential.

Indigo Books is our event sponsor today. And all of us at Rotman were delighted when Heather Reisman herself, Indigo’s founder, chair, and CEO, accepted the invitation to lead Malcolm in conversation. Heather is one of Canada’s most respected entrepreneurs and business leaders. She and her husband are among the country’s most generous philanthropists. Earlier this year they made an historic 100 million dollar investment in the University of Toronto, the soon to be built Schwartz/Reisman Innovation Centre will accelerate innovation in Toronto and Canada by creating the country’s largest ever university innovation node.

And the new Schwartz/Reisman Institute for Technology & Society is exploring the ethical and societal implications of AI and other emerging technologies. Their investment is the largest donation in U of T’s history.

Over the last 20 years Heather has given many compelling talks on our stage, and expertly interviewed many amazing authors. Everyone, please join me in a very warm welcome to Malcolm and Heather.


Over to you.

Heather Reisman: Okay. Thank you. Wonderful. It says an amazing amount that all these students…and I see not only students here…but that all these students are up at 8:00 a.m. in the morning to hear you, Malcolm. And it’s great to be here with you.

Malcolm Gladwell: I would not, were I a student today, be up at 8:00 a.m. to see me.


Heather Reisman: That’s what I imagine. All right. This book, of all your books, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading them all, this book seems to excavate a subject that is so relevant for our time. So, just as we get into this, what provoked you to explore this idea of how we talk to, and more importantly how we understand strangers?

What is it that…what provoked you into this subject?

Malcolm Gladwell: Well, there’s a serious answer and a non-serious answer. The non-serious answer which is always the better answer, is I got really into…I’m a big fan of spy stories. And the thing about spy stories is that the spy never gets caught, which makes no sense, right. The spy should get caught. But in fact spies, they usually hang around for a decade and when they get caught they get caught because some absurd thing happens that has nothing to do with them being a spy, and by accident. And then we’re like, ‘oh my goodness we had a spy in our midst.’

And I tell a series of spy stories in the book. And I have puzzled about this for years. I’m like…and it’s never…all of the conditions about spies…so the spies who never get caught are never, they’re not like James Bond spies. So they’re not like dark geniuses. In fact they’re usually inept. They’re always like…

Heather Reisman: Embedded right in front of us, [What’s that?] right in our midst.

Malcolm Gladwell: Yeah. Yeah. They often have major behavioural issues, they’re typically alcoholics. You know the worst, the most damaging spy…the two most damaging spies of the 20th Century in the United States are Oliver James, who was a really bad at his job; got really bad performance reviews; was a raging alcoholic. Once the Soviet Union started paying him money, large amounts of money to hand over all his secrets he just spent it.

So one day he’s driving to work in a Hundi, the next day he’s driving to work in a BMW 7 Series, and he was completely unaware that this might…or unworried that this might cause suspicions. And he’s like wearing fancy Italian suits and Brioni loafers and his wife bought 100’s of shoes. And he’s on a G7 civil service salary. And everyone was like, ‘oh, I guess Rick’s come into some money.’ There were no eyebrows raised. This story is told over and over and over again.                


I began with this because the inability of people to figure out that the person with whom they are working is actually someone else, that was fascinating to me, and that got me rolling on this. Because then I realized well, that seems to be a very modern kind of problem, that people would have a …that he would be incapable of discerning someone’s true identify.

Heather Reisman: And who they are. You tell an amazing story at the beginning, the story of the young black woman who goes to a town to start over, and she’s all excited about her new job. She gets stopped by a policeman in what turns out to be the most incredible altercation, and an end result…just for the pepe who haven’t read the book yet, share that’s story because it’s a great entry into this. Just quickly share that story.

Malcolm Gladwell: So this is…the book opens and ends. It’s framed by the story of Sandra Bland. And Sandra Bland was one of …there was the string of high profile cases involving African Americans and law enforcement in America, beginning with Ferguson and Michael Brown. She was one of those cases and maybe the most heartbreaking of them all. And she’s coming from a job interview in a small town in Texas, is pulled over for a failure to use her turning signal; so it’s a pretext, she didn’t do anything wrong.

And then, she gets into an altercation. I mean, the conversation with the police officer just escalates and becomes this kind of absurd confrontation. And he drags her out of the care and arrests her and she commits suicide a few days later in her cell.

And the thing that made that…one of the things that made it memorable was that the entire conversation was captured by the officer’s dash cam video. So we know, normally there is always this kind of dispute about what actually happened and maybe it was…there was no dispute because we knew, we had an exact transcript. And I found that video and that transcript to be completely riveting. And they’re the text for the book because it’s about two people who do not know each other, are forced to have a high stakes conversation, and at every turn the police officer misunderstands her.

Heather Reisman: It actually didn’t make sense. You bookend, the book is bookended with this conversation. It didn’t make sense at all. If he stopped her for the taillight or some sense that there might have been something suspicious on the stop, how did that happen? How did that escalate from your taillight, to lady get out of the car, to lady you’re going to be put in jail. [Yeah]

How did that happen? What was going on? I mean, the woman commits suicide, she gets stopped for a taillight, and she ends up dead three days later. How did that happen?              

Malcolm Gladwell: Well, it’s a story that…the reason that I chose it to be the kind of text of the book is you can attack that story on 10 different levels. [Hmm, hmm] It is on one level about a police officer who comes to believe that she is defying his authority. He also harbors a kind of weird paranoid fantasy that she might be a criminal; that she’s actually up to no good.

But the level I choose to spend the most time on in the book is on a much higher level which is on a constructural level; he’s doing what he’s trained to do. So we’re in an era right now in American law enforcement…I doubt this is true here since on most matters Canadians are more sane than their neighbours…but there’s a philosophy of law enforcement that is currently in vogue in America, which is based on this notion that officers should be proactive and that you should be willing to stop 1,000 people to find two criminals.

And so, you have, you know the hit rate its worse than…you know how when you go to the airport they search your bags. The hit rate for finding something in a bag is like; they find…it’s like one in 10 million, or something. It’s absurdly low. [Right] And when they do find…and I’ve always wondered about the absurdity…when they find…you ever notice when you have a water bottle, right, they reason they take the water bottle is that the water bottle could conceivably be an explosive. But when they find it in your bag, they take it out of the bag and then they just throw it away into the garbage can. [Laughter] And you’re sort of torn because you know you’re not supposed to say anything but part of you wants to say, ‘ahh…

Heather Reisman: ‘It’s a bomb. It’s a bomb.’

Malcolm Gladwell: ‘It could be a bomb. Don’t do that.’

But it’s so completely disconnected from reality. Every now and again in America the agency that runs the screening, the TSA, will insert guns into bags to see if the people find them. And they never find them. Like 95 per cent or something, I have the statistics in the book, of the guns go unfound.            

So it’s like, so everyone in that arena considers it totally cool to drastically inconvenience every aircraft, every airplane traveller, even though the odds of finding something are vanishingly small. And even though when something is found they either…or something does exist, they either don’t find it, or when they find it they throw it in the garbage.                                         


Heather Reisman: I guess they’re operating on the kind of remote probability…

Malcolm Gladwell: Yes. So that philosophy is now being used by police officers on the street, which is why in American police officers pull over motorists with this…unless you drive in America you have no comprehension of how frequently this happens…so this officer in the Sandra Bland case, pulls over people all the time, always for trivial infractions. And if you look at…we have his exact police record, he never found…once in his career he found a gun. I mean his job was basically pulling over people for the most absurd…

Heather Reisman:  All the examples you use here are so interesting. And there are cases in the news that we all watch, one I’m sure very interesting to this audience; the Bernie Madoff case where you’re saying our inability, even with facts, even with bread crumbs all around, somehow our inability to understand strangers. [Yeah] The Bernie Madoff case is incredible.

Malcolm Gladwell: Bernie Madoff…so there’s a couple of, in retrospect, sort of hilarious Bernie Madoff stuff; one is that the SCC, which is full of very intelligent people, it’s not a bogus agency, would go, from time to time they would look at Bernie’s returns which were supposed to be…his trading strategy was supposed to be tied to the market, but his results were independent of the market. So they were defying gravity.

This raised a reasonable concern at the SCC so they would go and see Bernie. And they would say, “Bernie you know you’re returning 15 per cent like clockwork, quarter after quarter. In the history of investing no one’s ever done that. Can you explain what you’re doing?” And Bernie would say, “I’m really good.” And they would say, “All right.”

And they would go back to their boss, I mean, it’s in the SCC Report, they would go back in and say, “Bernie says he’s really good.”

Heather Reisman: You explain Renaissance, right. Renaissance Capital; they know, they’re smart guys. They say this is ridiculous. We have all this money with this guy. We know he’s nuts and they only lose half their position.

What is that?  

Malcolm Gladwell: The smartest hedge fund in the world is Renaissance Capital right, more successful of all time. They had a big Bernie Madoff stake. And they…this was years before he’s busted. And they are so smart. These are the guys who came from IBM, I remember, all Ph.D.’s. They made better returns than any hedge fund in history. They have a Madoff stake and they say well, his trading strategy makes no sense. He can’t be doing what he says he’s doing. So maybe we shouldn’t hold on to this stake, $30 million dollar stake. Maybe we shouldn’t hold on to it.

Then they’re like, hmm, yeah, all right. They sell half of it. Like nobody, the point is, and I talk about this a lot in the book, it’s this idea of default to truth; it is incredibly difficult as human beings for us to make the leap to believe that the person we’re in contact with is being deceptive. We have a default to truth. We are trusting engines as human begins.

Heather Reisman: And you make the point, I want to come back to this, you make the point, we need to be because if we weren’t trusting we could never have society and work with people. So I want to come back to the default to truth.

But you introduce this idea of mismatch, mismatch between how someone behaves and the perception that we develop, or what we propel onto them almost. Amanda Knox, which is another case where you say…a great example of mismatch, right; we didn’t like, or they didn’t like the way she behaved. Unpack that one a little and then I’m going to get into the themes that you’re…

Malcolm Gladwell: So we have…so when you look very closely at this problem of, why is it we’re incapable of telling when someone is lying to us. So some of us may think we’re good at picking up lies. You’re not. I can tell you right now, you’re not. No one is good at this. Liars get away with their lies for as long as they want to put in the effort.

Heather Reisman: Witness Donald Trump.

Malcolm Gladwell: Witness Donald Trump, yeah, although let’s bracket that because I want to come back to it.


Heather Reisman: Okay. We will.

Malcolm Gladwell: I think he’s a separate…

Heather Reisman: We’ll save him.

Malcolm Gladwell: So dig into that. What you discover is that there are certain kinds of people with whom we have the most trouble, and they are people who are called mismatched. And a mismatched person is someone who’s facial expressions and body language does not match their emotional states. Not for any kind of pathological reason, but just because in the normal course of human variability, there are some people who when they are nervous they sweat profusely and they stammer and their face flushes. And there are some people when they’re nervous look absolutely calm, right. The person who is terrified but talking to you like this [Slowly] is mismatched.

I tell a story about my dad. My dad was once on holiday with my mom. My dad hears my mother scream. He comes running out of the shower naked; he’s 75. And he sees a young man, an enormous young man with a knife to my mother’s throat. My father says…points his finger at the guy and says, “get out now.” The guy runs away.

Now, the question is why does the guy run away? My dad is 75, naked. One school of thought, which was suggested to me by a radio show host in America is that oh, nobody wants to fight a naked man, which I hadn’t thought about this but it’s like, it’s totally true, particularly if the guy’s dripping wet and 75. My father, with all due respect to him, hence a man, I wouldn’t want to fight with him naked.

So there’s that. It’s terrifying. But there’s also the fact that my father was mismatched. At that moment he was probably as terrified as he’s ever been in his life, right. His beloved wife of 50 years…but my father never showed fear on his face, ever. So this guy sees this man not only as naked but he thinks he’s a psychopath. My father’s like ‘grrr, get out now.’ And here he is…

Heather Reisman: He drops his knife and he runs out?


Malcolm Gladwell: Just dropped the knife and skedaddled out the door, yeah. So that is a… people like my dad give us problems, right. Now, so think about this. If you are…there are a number of different settings where you might encounter someone like my father and you would have trouble with him. So if you didn’t know, if you saw my father in that moment and didn’t know him well, you would think he was a psychopath. He was not a psychopath. He is the sweetest, kindest man alive. He just didn’t show it on his face, right.

So think about that in a number of other settings. Suppose the whole theory…I’m very, very opposed to job interviews which I think are preposterous. And one of the preposterous things about a job interview is that there is some benefit in meeting the candidate face to face. What is the benefit? What if you meet someone who’s mismatched? There seems to be more opportunity for making a dramatic mistake with someone. The kind of information that you’re getting from the…

Heather Reisman: By the way, I think that gets in the way of Blink.

Malcolm Gladwell: No it doesn’t. I often do contradict myself, quite happily,

Heather Reisman: Okay. Go ahead. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.

Malcolm Gladwell: Because remember one of the…the final story in Blink is the story about how symphony orchestras did not begin to hire women until they conducted blind auditions. So until they were …for millennia, centuries, symphony orchestras never hired women and if you asked them why they would say because women can’t play classical music. And they persisted in this belief until the 1980’s when they put up, finally for other reasons, put up a screen so they couldn’t see the person while they auditioned.

And the minute they could no longer see the person they began to hire women immediately. And so many women, so quickly, that women quickly became close to a majority of many orchestras.

Heather Reisman: So I interrupted. You were saying…


Malcolm Gladwell: So they thought they were gathering information about a stranger of value by looking at the stranger. But in fact by looking at the stranger all they did was collect information that reinforced a pre-existing bias they had. They would have been better off not meeting them, which makes me wonder in how many job interviews would we be better off not meeting the candidate?

So everyone in this room is going to do high stakes job interviews for big deal jobs, very, very soon. Very few of those jobs are going to be jobs where your actual self-presentation is crucial. You guys are not going to be selling perfume on the ground floor of The Bay, right. You’re going to be applying for jobs as analysts, as consultants, all those kinds of things.

What value is there in your future employer meeting you? They’re going to be gathering…what if you’re mismatched. What if you’re someone who when you’re incredibly interested you don’t look interested. So the employer says, well, I don’t know why you came to this interview. You’re cleared bored out of your mind. And you’re not. Why should the employer have an opportunity to…what if you’re employer…I mean, and then there are more prosaic reasons; what if you’re the wrong skin colour for your employer. What if you’re the wrong height; what if you’re not attractive enough for…all kinds of things that are irrelevant to your ability to do the job.

Heather Reisman: But you’re not saying an interview shouldn’t happen. You’re saying in person interviews could lead you in the wrong direction.

Malcolm Gladwell: I don’t believe in the in-person interview.

Heather Reisman: So how…do you have any people that work in your company that works at WeWork? [Yeah] How did you hire them?

Malcolm Gladwell: Well, I’ve taken this very serology. So, for years I’ve been worried about…I make people redact the name of their institutions. So I don’t want to know where you went to school. I care that you went to school but I feel it’s only harmful to find out the name of the institution.                                 


So on this recent round …I just hired a new assistant…I met one of them but the one I hired I Skyped with so I saw her ace. But now I regret Skyping. Now I think I should have just emailed with her. I don’t even think it’s appropriate for me to talk to her on the phone, because I think her tone of voice is irrelevant. She’s my assistant; she’s not speaking for me. Why do I care how she speaks? So if I don’t care how she speaks why should I listen to the way she speaks?

I don’t care how she looks. She’s not modelling for me. She’s working for me, right. So do I care whether she’s tall or short? No. Do I care whether she’s got blond hair or black hair? No. Do I care whether she has a tattoo on her forehead? No. I don’t care. So all I’m doing by meeting her is introducing sources of bias into the…I care that she’s an honest, good person who’s diligent. Can I tell that from meeting her; actually, no. Because everything we know about our ability to read a stranger is that we’re really bad at picking up on fundamental character traits from a face-to-face encounter. So don’t do the face-to-face encounter.

Heather Reisman: So we have to deal with strangers. [Yeah] We have to deal with strangers all the time. Usually the decisions we have to make with strangers aren’t that important. When you go to the grocery store, you stop somewhere when you’re crossing the border, they’re not that important.

But in the larger sense…because I think this does get to where we are as a society…in the larger sense as our societies become more diverse, naturally more diverse, we do need to understand how to deal with people that we would define as strangers. So how do we get better? How do we get better at determining the truth, at reading through mismatch queues, how do we get better?

Malcolm Gladwell: Well, I mean the most important step is in abandoning some of our…so our biggest problem is we’re vastly overconfident in our ability to quickly make sense of another person. So step number one is being a little bit more humble about that ability.

So to give you another…since I’m on this job interview jag…when I was doing my episode of my podcast Revisionist History, I did two episodes on the LSAT because I challenged my assistant, who’s half my age, to the LSAT because I wanted to see what I got.


And so, we did the LSAT. And then I got in deep on the whole question of how law firms hire people. And I found this guy who did Moneyball for law firms; fascinating guy. And one of the many, many things he did was he…when you go to a law firm and you’re applying for a job you meet with some partners and they give you a grade, right. And so, what he did is he collected grades given by partners, and then he went back and correlated the grade with the hirees’ actual performances of law.

So the question is, was there any connection between how well you scored on your initial job interview and your actual performance as a lawyer? And what he found was that there was a negative correlation between how much the partner liked you and how good you had actually turned out to be.

Now, if I saw that data and I was in a law firm I would say, okay I think we should stop this practice now, right. This is not good. In fact…and let me back this up; it’s funny I just remembered this…Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Business, told me an almost identical story. When he was at Monitor Consulting and he became managing partner, he made everyone rate the incoming class on a scale…each year they would hire a whole bunch of new people…everyone had to give him…all the existing partners had to rate every newcomer. And then he would revisit the ratings five years later.

So he would wait five years and then he would go back. And what he found was the exact same thing. That there was no correlation between the expectations of a new hire at the point of hiring and their actual performance as a…

So at a certain point you’ve got to say, look, I mean either we just put a bunch of applicants in a hat and pull them out, or we radically change the way we assess them. What we cannot do is continue to do the same stupid methods which are empirically shown to be completely faulty, right. So that’s an example of, you have to come to terms with the fact [Heather coughs] that you cannot deal with a stranger the same way you deal with a loved one. That’s the issue here that we’re…we have a great amount of confidence in our ability to read people, because we can read our intimates well,

Heather Reisman: We project that on to strangers. But you have another example in the book where I would say the relationship was not quite a stranger. And the example I’m talking about is Larry Nasser.

So Larry Nasser is the coach for these young girls. The parents bring the young girls to him. He’s not totally a stranger. Their kids are training with him [Yeah] and yet they are in complete denial, even sometimes…not only clues but their daughter is telling them things that they’re uncomfortable. And yet, they wanted to project this God-like wonderment on him, and they refused…even in situation where they were almost in the same room.


So, share a little, and most people know the story from the news, but what about that story was interesting and what did you…how did that add to this…we just can’t read the people that we think we can.

Malcolm Gladwell: A pedophile is…Larry Nasser is a pedophile as was Jerry Sandusky whose story I also tell in the book. A pedophile is a spy. A pedophile is someone who is functioning in an environment where he is pretending to be normal, and is in fact harboring a criminal deviant side to his character, right.

So, we’re not very good at finding spies in the real world, real spies. So why would be better at finding pedophiles? He’s engaging…the pedophile is doing exactly the same thing that a treasonous spy is doing. They are obscuring their true identify from us. So in that sense they are…we think we know them when we don’t. And the default to truth theory, which is the theory that I spend a lot of time on in the book, says that doubt is not the same as…it’s possible to have doubts about someone and still believe them.

So doubt is the companion of belief, not the enemy of belief; that you change your mind about someone and come to believe someone is deceptive only when the doubts become so many doubts that they are impossible to ignore.

So with a pedophile you may observe things and what you will do is you will…you observe small things that might raise small doubts. And you just keep dismissing them. The same way you do with a spy. Oliver James shows up in a BMW which is odd for a guy making $50,000 dollars a year and you say, ‘hmmm, must have inherited some money.’

Then he gets his teeth capped. You’re like, ‘oh, maybe he has a dentist friend who gave him’…and then he’s wearing Brioni loafers and you’re like, ‘must have been a sale,’ right. [Laughter] Until finally, you capture some KGB spy that says ‘you have someone high up in your counter intelligence division who’s working for us.’ And you’re like, oh, it’s probably Rick, right.

The same thing…that’s the same…

Heather Reisman: The Cuban spy, the Cuban spy….

Malcolm Gladwell: Well, the Cuban spy story is in the…yeah.'


Heather Reisman: Yeah. You have to share. I mean, the stories in this book are so compelling. Just, while you’re on to spies…

Malcolm Gladwell: If I give all these stories people won’t…

Heather Reisman: Oh but they’re so good because then we’re going to get…

Malcolm Gladwell: Let me finish the Nasser thing. The pedophile is no different. So the parents take their child to be treated by Larry Nasser…and there’s one story which I quote in the book where the mother, who is herself a doctor, as Larry Nasser is treating her 11-year-old daughter for this…and she observes that Nasser has an erection. She’s in the room. She’s sitting here, right here. He is five feet away and she looks and he has a massive erection.

And she’s like ‘oh, that must be very embarrassing for him.’ like she doesn’t make the connection between the erection and the fact that he has his fingers inside her daughter’s vagina, right. That is not because she is a bad parent or a negligent person or complicit with him. That’s what we do. We are trusting engines. It’s really hard for us to take that final…

Heather Reisman: Can we stop on that one, because I bumped on that one, thinking that it wasn’t because they were a trusting engine…I’m just curious about your view…I bumped on that story because what it fell to me like, and maybe I’m projecting, but it felt to me like was that mother is so committed to her daughter’s career as an elite athlete, and she so wants to stay on that path of the elite athlete, that anything that might have pushed her off that path [Yeah] she was just not going to accept. That’s how I felt when I was reading the story, which was a bit different than just being trusting.


Malcolm Gladwell: Well, no, I would argue that is a powerful part of…so in every case where we default to truth there is a version of that. Why is it so hard for the husband to realize his wife is cheating; because he desperately wants the marriage to be real. Why is it so hard for the people who invested with Bernie Madoff to come to understand that the man is a Ponzi schemer; because they are powerfully attracted to the 15&percnt returns, year in and year out. There is always some reason why we want to maintain the illusion that this person we’re dealing with is honest. In the case of pedophilia it’s really, really hard because the crime itself is so devastating. So the more unspeakable the deception is, the harder it is for us to accept it.

So there’s a book that was actually written by a woman named Karla Van Damme, who is Canadian. And it is…did she write the book or did she…no, I’m thinking of someone else. Or maybe she did. Anyway she’s written on this.

Heather Reisman: Aren’t we glad this even happens to him?

Malcolm Gladwell: But there is a book I found in the library once which was written…it was a collection of essays that had been put together by, I believe her or many someone else in that field, by someone who studied pedophiles.

And what they had done is they had put together…they had gone to a series of pedophiles and asked them to write up their…to write little mini memoirs of their life as a pedophile. And they are the most terrifying things you’ll ever see. And what you realize is that every case is like that. The Larry Nasser case is not unusual at all. That’s what happens over and over.

This is the creepiest book I’ve ever read in my life. And I’ll never forget this one thing where the guy used to play a game where he would deliberately abuse children in front of their parents. That was what was thrilling for him. And he’s like ‘I never got caught. They’d been in the room with me and they would never see it.’

But the point it is…so it’s not like…granted there is a weird dynamic. If you’re a gymnastics mom and you are taking your 10-year-old child to train three hours a day in a sport that’s so brutal that they have to go and get treatment for serious injuries, you already have some, I would argue, some problems as a parent.

Heather Reisman: So, there’s something in our brains about how we project what we want to believe, this default to truth. So, ought we to be doing something about it? Ought we to be…

Malcolm Gladwell: No, we shouldn’t do anything about it.


Heather Reisman: Okay, so you’re saying we need that for society. So therefore, where do we go with this? I read this and I thought, would I change the way I interact with people, maybe interviews…but are you thinking after doing all of this excavation, will you change the way you interact with people?

Malcolm Gladwell: No. The argument in the book is that we need to accept…the benefits of being trusting are so large that we need to accept the cost, which is that we will be occasionally deceived, and just move on. Nothing you can do about it. You don’t want to be…so there is one guy, for example who sees through Madoff, it’s Harry Markopolos. He’s the guy who goes to the SCC four times and tries to get them to…because he understands that Madoff is a Ponzi schemer.

So, I went to see Markopolos because I wanted to find out what is it like to be the one person who does not default to truth. Harry Markopolos is a lunatic. He thinks everyone is scamming him.  Yeah. He thinks everyone…the reason he thinks that Madoff is scamming him is because he thinks everyone is scamming him.

And he told me the story about how he goes to the doctor and the first thing he says, ‘whenever I go to the doctor all I can think about is like 50 per cent of the tests ordered by doctors are unnecessary and just an attempt to line their own pockets. So I tell the doctor right away, don’t you dare! You mess with me, blah, blah, blah…just going to the doctor, right.

What I go to the doctor, I’m like you know, hi. He’s like, don’t fuck with me. And then, he told me this incredible story. He becomes convinced that the Attorney General of New York, Eliot Spitzer is the only one…this is after repeated failures with the FCC…is the only one who can bust Madoff.

So he has a report he’s written on how Madoff is crooked. And so, he puts on latex gloves, prints out the report so that his fingerprints are not on it because it’s got it in his head that he can’t possibly reveal himself. Puts it in, not just in one but in two plain brown envelopes, puts on a very, very bulky sweater, and then not one but two overcoats, big hat. Goes to an event that Spitzer is speaking at, and then when the event is over sidles up to someone working at the venue and says to her, ‘get this to Eliot’ and gives her the plain brown envelope. Now what are the odds…?

Heather Reisman: That she goes to Spitzer.


Malcolm Gladwell: Yeah. You’re working at…it was at the Kennedy Library in Boston. You’re working at the Kennedy Library. Some dude in two overcoats wearing latex gloves slips you, not one but two envelopes inside of one another, and says I have the dirt on Bernie Madoff. Like yeah, right. I mean, your job description is not to give envelopes that come from people like that to the speaker, right?

And it doesn’t work. And he becomes convinced…

Heather Reisman: Could there be white anthrax.

Malcolm Gladwell: Could there what?

Heather Reisman: Could there be anthrax power in those?

Malcolm Gladwell: Who knows what he has. And then when they bust Madoff he becomes convinced that the SCC is going to take him out because he’s an embarrassment to them. So he sits in his house with a shotgun and a gas mask on waiting for the commando squad from the SCC.

So, he simultaneously believes that the SCC is so incompetent that they can’t find a Ponzi schemer, but so eerily Machiavellian that they have put together a commando squad which they deploy around the country to take out whistleblowers that no one else has ever heard of. I mean, the point is you can’t be like Harry Markopolos and survive and make…how fun is his life? Not that fun.

Heather Reisman: So, on the last example before we go a bit broader, but on the last example that I think is going to be very relevant to this group that you excavate, it’s the Stanford Jane Doe story, we know now is Chantelle Miller. Yeah. Yeah.

Malcolm Gladwell: Not Miller, it’s something else.


Heather Reisman: Miller, yeah, Miller.

So this is the story of the young girl who was badly raped and left sort of in a semi-conscious position. And you talk about reading the clues like yes or no, did she actually want to participate. So people in universities need to be able to read clues, right to this whole subject of what constitutes yes, and are you reading clues. In those situations don’t you need to be able to read the clues or hear the language?

Malcolm Gladwell: Well, that chapter is about alcohol and drunkenness. What does being drunk do to our ability to have a conversation with a stranger, right? And the answer is that it powerfully erodes, not just your ability to understand someone else and communicate with someone else, but also it erodes who you are. So when you are consenting…you may consent to something while inebriated but you are no longer consenting. Someone else is in the…this is this idea about…

Heather Reisman: And the assumption is he was drunk, too by the way, right.

Malcolm Gladwell: Oh, he’s drunk out of his mind. And the reason… this chapter is a complicated one. And we probably don’t have enough time for me to kind of dig into it properly. But I wanted to write about sexual assault on campus because it’s such an epidemic problem right now. The numbers are really terrifying. And we’re not doing a very good job of confronting it and dealing with it

So I started to go around the country talking to people who either study the problem or who have firsthand experience with it. So deans of universities; and they all said exactly the…every single one of them said exactly the same thing. And the first thig they said to me which was, ‘oh, so you’re going to have to talk about drunkenness.’ I was like, ‘I didn’t know that’ and they’re like ‘yeah, this is an alcohol problem.’ Not entirely, but it is powerfully…they basically say we don’t see any cases where the people involved aren’t drunk.                        


So, this is about what happens to people when they are severely inebriated, and so you have to…so that’s what the chapter is about. It’s about trying to come to terms with the role that alcohol plays in causing these interactions to go array. And at some level you’re like well, that’s obvious. But the problem is that the way we are discussing this problem, in many cases, we’re leaving alcohol out of the equation. And we’re failing to understand the ways in which drinking on campus is profoundly different today than it was, for example, in our generation. I’m assuming we’re roughly the same.

Heather Reisman: I’m probably older than you but…

Malcolm Gladwell: I was going to say, I was going to guess you were younger than me. And that is a very, very significant fact. And it’s your…not to point the finger at you even as I point the finger at you…it’s your generation that is having the most difficulty, both with this issue and with alcohol. And I think it is incumbent on your generation to own up to the fact that the way you are dealing with alcohol is profoundly problematic.

Heather Reisman: So, I thought the connection when I was reading it was if you were…if reading strangers can be difficult sometimes; you project things that aren’t so…its way more difficult if both people are drunk. [Impossible] I actually thought when I reading that chapter that I wish your book had been around when the whole Kavanagh hearings were going on because clearly this guy was drunk out of his mind. He wouldn’t remember what he did.

Malcolm Gladwell: He was probably…this actually really never came up. I spent a lot of time on the phenomenon of being blackout drunk. This idea that you can be a functional…you can appear functional but you’re hippocampus is shut down. And so, you’re not making any memories. So what does it mean if I’m having a conversation with you if the minute words come out of my mouth I’ve forgotten what they are. [Hmm, hmm]

So if you and I are both blackout drunk we can have a conversation, we can dance, we can chat, we can see a move, but nothing that we say to each other will be remembered by either of us. So we could literally have a convention where I would just say over and over again, we could literally have a conversation where I could so over and over again…and you would have the same look on your face of, wow, isn’t Malcolm interesting, [Laugher] right.                                       


Now, you’re laughing but like in the way that drinking happens today…and it’s really, really hard to get blackout drunk on beer. So when I was in college we basically only drank beer. It was unknown phenomenon. I went to Trinity College in the 1980’s. We drank, a lot, right. I never knew anyone who got blackout drunk. Blackout drinking used to be so rare that people who studied it thought it was just alcoholics, serious lifetime alcoholics, who got blackout. Now, if you go to undergrads at an American university and you ask them about blackout drunk there will be kids who will tell you that they get blackout drunk every weekend. I mean, this is a huge…now so we are…take a young man who has six shots of vodka, who is blowing .20 on the breathalyzer and who is blacked out by 10:30 at night. And you are ‘loosing’ that young man on a party where there are other people, where there be women who are also blackout drunk. Now ask me if anything good can come out of that, right.

You have, neither party is capable of forming any kind of memories and if you cannot form memories you cannot form any kind of assessment of…so we are asking the young man, before he is sexually aggressive with someone, get their consent. How do you get consent from someone when you’re blacked out and they’re backed out?

Heather Reisman: So the heart of the problem is the alcoholism.

So where do we go with this? Like if want to be better, like on those circumstances where it will matter. If you’re saying a lot of times you don’t read a stranger where it doesn’t matter.

But there are times when it does matter. It does matter when you’re hiring someone. It does matter when you’re electing someone. We elect people; we don’t know anything about them, mostly how much charisma comes off them. [Yeah]

Malcolm Gladwell: I think we shouldn’t meet people that we elect, either.

Heather Reisman: We should meet them or we should not?

Malcolm Gladwell: Oh, God no.

Heather Reisman: We shouldn’t meet them.

Malcolm Gladwell: No, no, no, no, no, no.


Heather Reisman: We should know something about…so, well, that’s a very good question. What should we know about people?

Malcolm Gladwell: Here’s my idea. [Yeah] It doesn’t really work because you know; it’s hard to imagine not meeting them. But imagine if you had, say 15 people running to be the party’s candidate in an election, as we do in the United States. And there was some way to magically not meet them. There’s a ton of things we could do. We could give them problems. You could come to them at 9:00 a.m. and give them a case study of the sort that students have all the time. A two page case study of a kind of problem they might…a crisis they might have to deal with if they became president.

And you say to them, you’ve got six hours. After six hours I would like you to record a 30 minute speech in which you detail how you would respond to this crisis. And we’ll all listen to the recordings. That strikes me as a being a super good way to get to know whether someone…so they can do whatever they want in those six hours. Talk to whoever they want, if they want to have someone else write the speech, fine. What I want to now is can you put together a thoughtful response to a novel problem in a short period of time under conditions of great pressure.

Heather Reisman: It would be way better.

Malcolm Gladwell: Way better. So what if the person who does the best job turns out after the fact to be a four foot eleven, highly unattractive, overweight person…

Heather Reisman: And bad on T.V.

Malcolm Gladwell: Bad on T.V. with a lisp; we would realize oh, maybe we made a mistake by only electing tall strapping handsome people. Maybe we ought to open it up to…there’s a whole range of other people out there who might be really, really good at this job who we have…I did a chart once where I took every U.S. Presidential candidate of both parties going back to 1900, and I charted the following things; what religion were they, what race were they, how old were they, and how tall were they.    


And what you discover, of course is that almost with two exceptions every single presidential candidate of the last 100 years in the United States has been over six feet, white, protestant, between the ages of 55 and 65, and a male; so Hillary wasn’t, Barak was Black, but it’s like 98 per cent fit that. So what percentage of the U.S. population is between 55 and 65, white, Protestant, over six feet and male? It’s like 10 per cent, if that.

So before you even start you’re ruling out 90 per cent of the population. That is bananas. That would be like me starting a company and saying, I’m starting this, and we’re going to do some cutting edge stuff in AI, software. It’s going to be totally brilliant but I’m only hiring people from Owen Sound.

Now, I have no problem with Owen Sound, I’m sure there are lots of really, really good people in Owen Sound. But you wouldn’t limit the search. You wouldn’t just blanket, like …I don’t even know where you would look for AI people in Owen Sound. Like it’s crazy but that’s what we’re doing. That’s exactly what we’re doing.

Heather Reisman: It’s interesting. In the end, when I finished reading it, in addition to being so engaged in the stories, what I mostly took away was in those moments when you have to make important decisions, and you’re meeting strangers, you ought to pay attention to what you had to say, which is maybe remove the normal processes and the normal biases. Not to give it up in everyday life because you want to have the trust.

And is that, in the end, when you finished your journey through this, is that how you feel, that there are certain decisions you will try to come at differently?

Malcolm Gladwell: Yeah. I mean, where possible. The last quote of the book is just about how different would law enforcement look if we took our problem with strangers seriously. So it’s really law enforcement. I could have done a similar kind of book looking at other fields but I chose law enforcement because I was so interested in the Sandra Bland case.

But yeah, I do think on a systematic and kind of institutional level there are…so, you know, the Philosophy Department at Princeton University hires faculty without meeting them. They just read their papers.

But the Psychology Department at Princeton University, which has been the home of a lot of research showing how problematic face to face interviews are, still does face to face interviews.      


So I wanted to do a podcast on this. I wanted to go, just to Princeton and start with the psychology department and describe all the research they had done on how bad face to face was. And then say, well so how do you hire? And then go to the philosophy department and have them comment on the…and I want a sort of civil war essentially between the two. But neither would return my calls.

Heather Reisman: Look we only have a few minutes left. I want to take advantage of the fact that we’re sitting with you, and you do spend a lot of time in the U.S. What the heck do you think is going to happen? You know a lot about people and their behaviour. You’ve observed all kinds of phenomena. This is a heck of a phenomenon. How is this current…what’s your gut sense of about how things are going to sort out.

Malcolm Gladwell: I don’t know. Meltdown, I have no idea. I mean…

Heather Reisman: You know a lot about human behaviour.

Malcolm Gladwell: No. I think they finally, I think they finally got him. [Applause] It took a while but I think…

Heather Reisman: I think why everyone is so…it is like watching crazy reality T.V. show but the world; you know we’re proudly Canadian. You’re Canadian, we’re all Canadians here. We’re proudly Canadian. We want to make contributions. But in the end the world I think needs a strong United States. It’s a big country.

Malcolm Gladwell: Yeah. So way back when, when Trump first took office and he went to the CIA and he gave a speech and he basically dissed them in the speech. This is really early on, like within weeks of taking the presidency. And I was talking…because I have all this stuff about the CIA in my book…so I was regularly talking to tall these CIA guys. And I asked them about it. And the CIA guys said ‘you know the thing you have to understand about the CIA is we may not be really good at our job of spying, but we are really good at getting even with people we don’t like.’ [Laughter] And he said "mark my words, if he goes after us we will bring him down.” 


Now, who’s the whistleblower in this case? It’s a CIA guy who was seconded to the white house. Now…

Heather Reisman: And he’s going after him. That’s unbelievable.

Malcolm Gladwell: Not just going after him, why do you think he’s there? They sent him there to listen in on the phone conversations. Of course they did, right. That’s, they’ve been waiting for this. They’re like, we’re going to send Alan over there, check back in with us when you got something. And Alan checked back in. He was like, ‘found something,’ right.

Heather Reisman: Now there is a story. You are such a beautiful storyteller, like you are such…this, this, this, this, this.

I just want to say on a serious note, I read stories… I mean I read books and I read stories for a living. That’s what I do. And you are the most compelling storyteller. And your stories do leave imprints in our brains and they are valuable. And we’re grateful. Thank you.

Malcolm Gladwell: Thank you.

Tiff Macklem: Wow. I’m only sorry this has to end. Before I thank Malcolm and Heather, a couple of things…first of all shortly after…very shortly a lot of students are going to come and have another lecture in here. So as much as I know you’d love to linger and chew through all this, we do need to exit the building.

I’ve been getting a few questions. One is, will Malcolm be around to sign the books. Unfortunately the answer is no. He has to rush off to another appointment. The other question I’ve got is how many people are in this room; 1,450 people here this morning.


And the final question people have is where do I buy the book? Well, Heather assures us that there are lots of copies of this book and all of Malcolm’s books at Indigo, So buy there.

Our next Rotman Indigo author event will take place on December 4th at 5:00 p.m. and Heather will be back, and she will be interviewing Stephen Schwartzman, Chairman and CEO and cofounder of Blackstone about his new book entitled “What it Takes; Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence.”

Thank you all for joining me. And a big thank you Malcolm and Heather.

This video was filmed at the Rotman School on October 1, 2019.

Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian journalist, author, and public speaker. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996. His first five books were on The New York Times Bestseller list. His sixth book, Talking to Strangers, was released in September 2019. He is also the host of the podcast Revisionist History and co-founder of the podcast company Pushkin Industries.
Heather Reisman is a Canadian businesswoman and philanthropist. Reisman is the founder and chief executive of the Canadian retail chain Indigo Books and Music. She is the co-founder and past chair of Kobo, and was appointed an officer of the order of Canada in 2019.