Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point 

The New Yorker writer's latest obsession catches a small audience by surprise.

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By Deanna Isaacs

On one of those heavy, dark nights in January, nine people--most of them strangers to each other--met for dinner in the back room at Spruce. They sat around a long table sipping wine, savoring artfully presented salmon or beef, making small talk. The hostess in the group, Sarah Crichton of Little, Brown and Company, had summoned seven guests to meet author Malcolm Gladwell, whose new book, The Tipping Point, she would publish in early March. Crichton is a tall, smart, congenial woman who chalked up three Oprah book club selections last year and can make any gathering a party just by being there. Gladwell is compact, wiry, and intense. He has dark, curly hair clipped stylishly close on the sides and wide eyes and looks boyish for his 36 years. This dinner was one stop on a road trip the pair was making to light a fire under The Tipping Point, which is about how ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like epidemics. But midway through the evening, something strange happened. Gladwell wanted to talk about something else. And once he started, The Tipping Point was quickly left behind. The subject on Gladwell's mind was menstruation.

Why would a hip hot male writer with a perfectly good book to promote hijack his own party to talk about the curse? The answer has to do with how Gladwell works. There comes a point in every story he does, he says, when he is completely immersed in the subject. A Washington Post reporter for nine years, he's been on the staff of the New Yorker since '96, when he freelanced a story called "The Tipping Point" for Tina Brown and she liked it so much she hired him. Since then he's written about everything from Ritalin to E-business, turning on one subject after another the voracious curiosity of a bookish kid still happy to have escaped from a backwater town in Canada, and a conversational expository style that is one part lucid analysis and one part mesmerizing storytelling. Now, writing about menstruation for the magazine, he's up to his ears in the bloody stuff. He's just come from talking to the guys in Southern California who are working on it and he has an opinion. A passionate opinion. He thinks it ought to stop.

There is nothing like a radical rant on menstruation at a mixed-company dinner of near strangers to commandeer the evening. Crichton, watching with a certain degree of alarm, made a polite but vain attempt to head this digression off, to steer her author back to their project, the book that grew out of his original New Yorker article. In that piece, Gladwell invoked the broken window theory to explain a huge drop in crime in New York City. The broken window theory boils down to the influence of the immediate environment on behavior. If people see a broken window, they think it's OK to break some more. On the other hand, if there's no graffiti on the subway, they'll think twice before pulling out a spray can--or a gun. For his book, Gladwell broadened the argument to show that behavior of all sorts is highly contagious, passing among people like viruses, crossing thresholds (tipping points), spreading geometrically (or explosively). This is how crime levels rise or fall, novels become blockbusters, and fashions--like the resurgence of Hush Puppies, which started with a few club kids in Manhattan--become fads.

The concept comes with its own jargon. New ideas are found by "mavens." They are "translated" into a form acceptable to the mainstream and spread by "salesmen" and "connectors" (what they used to call movers and shakers: folks with great Rolos who know how to use them). Whether a particular trend reaches epidemic status depends on the "stickiness" (memorability) of the material, the effectiveness of the connectors, and the "context" they're working in. Gladwell found a classic connector in Chicago's Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, Lois Weisberg (the subject of another of his New Yorker articles), who "is able to spread a piece of information or an idea a thousand different ways, all at once." As an example of her connectedness he tells how she once brought Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, and Robert Heinlein together for a casual evening in her home. The book includes a test readers can take to see if they might be connectors too.

Behind Gladwell's engaging synthesis of pop culture and academic research is an appreciation of the social psychology of 30 or 40 years ago that said you could help people by changing their environment. "I wanted to revitalize the environmentalist liberal agenda," Gladwell told me over coffee the next morning. "We believed this in the 60s and then we got disheartened and gave it up. And I think the reason we got disheartened is we did dumb ideas. We thought that putting everybody in high-rise public housing was a way of turning their lives around. I think we're smarter now. Just because some of the old 60s ideas about environmentalism were bad doesn't mean the whole project was wrong."

"To work, cities have to have some baseline level of civility," Gladwell believes. Asking people to conform to a set of rules (like respect for property) doesn't bother him. "The people who really scare me are the people who say that all kinds of traits--whether it be criminality or intelligence--are innate, completely genetically determined. Because that admits no possibility of change." If you accept the broken window theory of crime, Gladwell says, you have to adjust your thinking about criminals. You have to entertain the idea that "the criminal--far from being someone who acts for fundamental, intrinsic reasons and who lives in his own world--is actually someone acutely sensitive to his environment." And we're not talking about major changes here: "The Power of Context says that what really matters is little things....You can prevent crimes just by scrubbing off graffiti."

The dinner at Spruce was meant to turn Gladwell's book contagious, to talk it up with salesmen and connectors who might give it a push toward the tipping point. It's an immensely readable book that romps through subjects as disparate as Paul Revere's ride, Blue's Clues, and the spread of HIV. But, to use Gladwell's terminology, none of it is as "sticky" as menstruation. When he began to expound on the evils of monthly bleeding, every ear at the table turned, fascinated, to catch his every word.

Women need to give it up, Gladwell declared. "Nothing good comes of it." They've built a whole culture around something that's bad for them. It's making them anemic and giving them breast cancer. And there's no precedent for it. Women are having hundreds more cycles than they did even a century ago, when menarche came later and they were more or less always pregnant. It's a phenomenon of modern life that ought to be stopped, he said.

When the dinner was over, the salesmen and potential connectors, still trying to do the hundreds-more-cycles math in their heads, walked out into a flurry of white. The clouds, having reached their tipping point, were shedding the crystal flakes of moisture that had bloated them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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