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The Mane Attraction

Malcolm Gladwell: the man. The social theories. The hair.


If you examine Malcolm Gladwell's photo on the sleeve of his first book, The Tipping Point, you'll see a smooth, well-manicured head of hair. It's black, cropped short, kind of like that dude from Fine Young Cannibals'. There's a certain coyness in Gladwell's gaze as well, as though the author is trying to seduce perusers into buying the book.

It worked. The Tipping Point, which contemplates the nature of social epidemics -- fads, crime waves, hit television shows -- has prospered; if you've heard the phrase "tipping point" a lot in the past few years, you can thank Gladwell.

Since that first book was published in 2000, however, Gladwell has let loose with his locks. He now sports a very impressive afro, as evidenced by the author photo for his second tome, the recently published Blink, which is currently the best-selling nonfiction book in the nation. His hair is wild and crazy, the kind of 'do more likely to be found on the head of a Vibe scribe than a New Yorker writer. Gladwell the best-selling author is looking a bit more cocky. The smile is gone. Now his stare is solid, even a bit defiant.

A few years ago, Gladwell's new afro came back to bite him. He was walking in lower Manhattan when a carful of cops approached him. They told him he matched the description of a rapist they'd been chasing. Gladwell was getting used to such encounters; ever since he had grown the afro, he'd been stopped by the cops more often. He'd been getting more traffic tickets, he says on the phone from New York City, "for the most preposterous things. I had practically never been given tickets, and then I was getting them all the time. But it's really interesting, because you realize that [the cops'] job requires them to make these kinds of judgments, and it's hard, and it's complicated. They were going on the fact that I had a funky head of hair, which isn't much. And it made me think, well, a lot happens in those first two seconds that matters, and the kinds of judgments they make there are complicated."

The result of this thinking spawned Blink, which examines the unspoken language of first impressions, of gut instinct, of snap decisions. The book is subtitled The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and throughout its pages Gladwell jumps across disciplines to attack the subject from countless angles. He talks about art forgery, the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the failure of New Coke, facial expressions. "We tend to think that everything important in a conversation is being communicated verbally," Gladwell explains, "but we were around for many millions of years before we could speak, and we communicated then. So there's an older -- and, in many ways, more profound -- method of communication that exists underneath language, and we'd be foolish to ignore that."