So You’re A Bigot, Then, And Discard Fairness And Reciprocity As Guiding Values! Thanks, Malcolm Gladwell! Good To Know…

I was once a big Malcolm Gladwell (“The Tipping Point”) fan before I figured out the pop psychology and “airplane book” author’s shtick. This latest revelation completes my disenchantment. On his website, Gladwell, discussing interview questions, wrote that he never hired any job applicants who answered in the negative when asked whether they could drive a manual transmission automobile. Those who have mastered a shift and clutch, Gladwell says,realize that the most fun cars in the world to drive are sports cars with manual transmission, and they like the idea of being able to turn a rote activity (driving) into an enjoyable activity. That, and his belief that people who drive a shift like “knowing how to do things that most people do not,” causes him to conclude that these are the only people he wants to work with

Got it. He’s a bigot and an asshole. If I were asked that question and I wasn’t interviewing for a chauffeur, I would ask, “What does that have to do with anything?” The question is really no different from asking one’s religion or party affiliation, ethnic background or position on abortion. It’s a justification for bigotry. The question would be enough for me to terminate the interview, and walk out. I don’t want to work with unfair people.

Ann Althouse approvingly flagged Gladwell’s argument, and guess what? She always drives a stick-shift! I don’t, and I don’t for what I feel is a valid reason: I don’t care. Driving for me is a means to an end; I also don’t care what my car looks like, what make it is or what cool features it has. As a life-long dilettante who is interested in too many things and is resigned to the tragic conclusion that I have underachieved in life due to a lack of focus, there are pursuits that I feel are a better use of my time than mastering a manual transmission. My son’s life and interests revolve around cars, so it made sense for him to learn to drive a manual transmission. He has different priorities than I do, and that’s fine with me.

I would never ask someone applying to work for ProEthics about their passion for baseball, whether they can name the U.S. Presidents in order or write a decent limerick on the spot. The belief that the best and most able people are like me is how racists and bigots think. Imagine wanting a job you are certain you can excel in and being rejected because of your answer to an arbitrary question like, “Do you know how to drive a manual transmission?”

I might ask Gladwell, if he were applying to be my assistant, “Do you understand the Golden Rule?”

But thanks to his essay, I already know the answer.

46 thoughts on “So You’re A Bigot, Then, And Discard Fairness And Reciprocity As Guiding Values! Thanks, Malcolm Gladwell! Good To Know…

  1. Oh, I don’t know. What if I asked you what bumper stickers, if any, you had on your car? That’s actually a jury screening question in New Jersey.

  2. I can drive a manual, but that doesn’t mean I want to. It’s a pain in the backside. His hypothesis that anyone who can drive a manual would know that manual is more fun is clearly wrong. My father taught me and all my siblings to drive one when we learned to drive because he considered it a useful life skill to have. I haven’t ever really needed to drive a stick shift since, but I can if I need to. Not sure what that has to do with anything unless you are applying for a job driving vehicles with manual transmissions.

    • Null Pointer,

      Pain in the butt is right.

      I was taught the theory of driving stick at 16. At 19, I put it to use with some success, “some success” meaning the ability to speed up but not having much skill down-shifting. If I had to slow down doing 55 MPH, I would pretty much need to come to a stop and start over.

      I think I got better with some practice when I was 21, but feared having to start on on an incline with a car behind me.

      Of course, just as Gladwell said, the cool cars have a manual transmission. So, when I was about 33, I got the chance to drive a ’69 Mustang convertible …

      From Alexandria, Virginia to Annapolis, Maryland …

      in rush hour …

      with no power steering.

      Hated every minute of it.


      • I got pretty good at stick shifting, up and down the gear box, but distinctly remember that time the clutch failed on my 1987 Honda Civic while driving up the Ship Channel bridge on Loop 610 East, which is about 6,000 feet high, with a 91% incline, and a bigass truck bearing down on me as my poor car learned the lessons of physics and the Immutable Laws of Gravity: When one’s clutch fails on a bigass bridge, the car and driver are toast. Yes. That is a true story.


        • Well, that is terrifying! To be fair, if the transmission goes out on an automatic on a hill like that you probably are going to be in trouble, as well. I’ve had that happen going down an incline like that. Transmission got stuck in 3rd gear and there was no manual way to switch it. Putting on the ebrake kept the car from careening out of control…but also set the tires on fire.

      • “ I think I got better with some practice when I was 21, but feared having to start on on an incline with a car behind me.”

        This is EXACTLY my issue with driving a manual. Almost everyone drives an automatic these days, and it really doesn’t occur to people that there might be a reason not to pull up to within 6 inches of the person in front of you at the red light, especially on a hill. I can manage not to hit those sorts of people, but it is stressful! Just not my idea of fun.

  3. I’ve spent over 40 years in a business that puts me in close contact with 22-year-olds. I’ve known hundreds of them pretty well. The number who, at that age, had access to a manual transmission sports car–notice that he’s not looking for a potentially useful skill like the ability to drive a tractor–can be counted on one hand.
    Gladwell is big on indirect questions. This one is simple: “Are your parents rich, because I don’t want to hire you if they aren’t.”

  4. I love driving manual transmission cars. 6-speed stick is fun. BUT, I would never hire someone for an ethics blog if they don’t understand the basics of baseball. Lots of relevant overlap there.

  5. What if they don’t know how to drive a manual transmission but they do know how to write in cursive? Or they mend their own clothes? Or they brew their own beer? Or they use the Unix operating system? There’s a million ways people can manifest his described value of learning unnecessarily manual processes other than driving stick. The problem is that Gladwell himself probably doesn’t know how to do any of those other things. In theory, it’d be better to hire people with skills or background experience that he doesn’t have. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that such an otherwise insightful person would have a blind spot that big.

    …After reading the whole document Gladwell wrote, I realized that this isn’t just any employee position: this is his interview for his assistants. He wants someone he can connect with over the shared love of a particular type of car, because he’s going to have to work closely with them and establish some kind of rapport or personal connection, even though it’s still a professional relationship, because that’s how humans work. That’s fine, I guess, but I’d be surprised if he couldn’t find something else he liked to chat about. I think he’s doing himself a disservice by excluding candidates he’d probably be able to connect with over non-automotive topics. It sounds like he responds to the motivation of idealization, rejecting candidates that don’t meet very specific criteria.

    My biggest problem here is that what he writes conflates “useful character traits” with “person I want to hang out with”. That’s a blind spot I can believe he has; he’s a famous intellectual, after all. It’s fine for him to hire the latter, even if it does fly in the face of intellectual diversity, but he should at least say that that’s what he’s doing. He shouldn’t be implying that all hiring should be done the way he does it.

    • I agree with Extradimensional Cephalopod that it’s a poor interview question simply because it will identity only a small fraction of those persons “willing to take the time to master a marginally useful skill”, “like knowing how to do things that most people do not”, and “like the idea of being able to turn a rote activity…into an enjoyable activity.”

      Still, the question might be useful for employers seeking to assess honesty. Having a license to engage in some particular behavior (e.g., practicing law) implies a person can actually engage in the behavior with some level of skill. Persons that have a driver’s license are typically licensed to operate vehicles with automatic transmissions and vehicles with manual transmissions even though they may have no ability to do the latter. Is it entirely honest to have a license to do something one cannot do? If a person has a driver’s license, does he also have an obligation to fulfill the skill requirements the license represents?

  6. I love driving manuals. Knowing to do it is useful and could be a requirement for a job with oversees travel, since manual is what you get if you travel to a lot of various non-US places, or so many of my friends and family have told me. I also feel they are safer, at least on high grade hills in the snow. I don’t care mich about other parts of the car.

    That aside, if overseas travel isn’t a thing, a chauffer isn’t a thing, and riding with them isn’t a thing for the job in question, it’s a stupid question to ask.

  7. Between school years, I had a lot of summer jobs, I had a lot of odd jobs. I franchised out a window repair tent between my second and third year and one of the questions during the onboarding was “why do you think manholes are round?”. I was later told they wanted to gauge ability to think outside the box.

    “If I were asked that question and I wasn’t interviewing for a chauffeur, I would ask, “What does that have to do with anything?” The question is really no different from asking one’s religion or party affiliation, ethnic background or position on abortion. It’s a justification for bigotry.”

    I think the quote above goes about twenty steps too far. Granted: Not hiring someone who doesn’t drive a stick is weird, and probably eliminated a lot of really good applicants…. But there’s more to the hiring process than raw applicable skills, interviewers don’t owe you an explanation for why they’re asking you any particular question, asking what the question has to do with anything is a shortcut to the door, asking whether someone can drive a stick is very different from asking about religion or ethnic background, and “manual transmission only” bigotry would be a new one even for the ACLU.

    In this case, Gladwell thinks that the ability to drive a stick is indicative of someone who takes a mundane activity and tries to spice it up. That’s his prerogative. It’s weird. It ends up being classist. I wouldn’t do it. But like I said above, there’s more to employment than raw skills, there’s corporate culture, there’s chemistry, and “seeks pleasure in mundane activities” isn’t beyond the pale.

    • You see, I adhere to the position that an interview is a two way street, which it should be. I have as much of a right to question the interviewer as the other way around, and if I don’t think a question is fair, it’s my choice to say so. If a potential boss says, “We don’t care what you think,” mu answer is “Bye! I don’t think I would be productive working for someone like you.”

      And beginning with my job hunts after graduating from law school, that’s been my approach to job interviews. I’ve only had to walk out of two—one was a job under Ron Zeigler, the former Nixon press secretary.

      • Yeah… We disagree here. An interview isn’t a collaborative effort, it’s an interview. If you’ve had interviewers who indulged criticism of their interview methods, hired you, and you went on to have affirmative employment…. Great! But that’s certainly not going to be the average experience, even in the best of circumstances.

        • I don’t disagree—that’s how the interview process is generally perceived. And it’s inefficient with an imbalance of power. I have always approached interviews as: “Convince me that I should be working here, and I’ll show you why you should want me.” And I think it’s the way it should be.

          • One thing that always bothered me about job hunting advice was how to sidestep inappropriate questions and still get the job. If they ask inappropriate questions, then why do you want to work for them, unless you’re desperate?

    • Agreed. I watched an interview with Mike Rowe of the “Dirty Jobs” fame. He said that his first real job was with QVC. They asked to him to sell a No,.2 pencil for 8 minutes. Fascinating how he told the story, having to think on his feet.


      • Several of his QVC bits can be found on YouTube, these plus his musings occasionally posted to Facebook have made Mike one of my most admired celebrities.

    • Manhole covers are round because they cannot fall in no matter which way they are positioned in a vertical plane.
      That isn’t thinking outside the box; it tests your understanding of geometry.

  8. I would never ask someone applying to work for ProEthics about their passion for baseball, whether they can name the U.S. Presidents in order or write a decent limerick on the spot.

    I feel like you would have more justification for asking questions like this. Ethics can be found in almost anything and understanding how those things work would go a long way to determining ethical outcomes.

    Also, it seems elitist. What cars have manual transmission that the average person can afford? My girl friend in high school taught me to drive one from an old beat up car she owned, but since then I haven’t even seen one that didn’t cost less than 50k.

    • Nah, there are a number of entry level cars with manual transmission, from Hondas, Nissans, and a few base model Bugatti*.


      *Ed. Note: This poster should be banned. Anyone who thinks an “entry level” or “base model” Bugatti is amusing should be banished forever. We here at the Moderators’ Table let this quip get passed us. We apologize. The posted has been warned: Any further attempts at poor quality humor will be dispatched quickly and with extreme prejudice.

      • This is inexcusable misinformation; my base model Bugatti doesn’t have a manual transmission.

        …..That’s a lie; my Bugatti isn’t a base model.

        ………That’s also misinformation; I don’t currently own a Bugatti.

        ……………That’s deceptive as well; I’ve never owned a Bugatti

    • My dad’s only slightly used Honda was under $20K. His Toyota before that was in that same range as was the Toyota prior to that. The several cars he keeps on his agenda in case he gets hit by a truck again are all in that range, or were prior to this year.

    • All of them? It’s about $1000 dollars cheaper to buy a car with a manual transmission, and while you might have to order one through the dealer, I assure you that you can get anything from a Civic to a Camaro with a stick.

  9. In the words of Doug DeMuro, a very informative and amusing You Tube car reviewer, “Sports car guys drive sticks. Sports car guys who want to go FAST drive automatics.” My brother and I and our cousins all grew up driving sticks. Our dad sold trucks and farm equipment and our cousins grew up on a farm and then went into the earth moving business. My first car was a 1930 Model A Ford (acquired in 1967). After that, I drove hand me down IH Scouts. Automatics were not an option. I’ve had four successive iterations of the VW GTI. Our current one is an automatic. Dual clutch (whatever that means) with F1 style paddle shifters, if you want to use them. The car is stupid fast. I test drove a newer GTI with a stick a year or so ago. It was like driving in mud. Modern day automatics are absolutely incredible. F1 and road racing cars haven’t had sticks for years, maybe a decade or two. Anybody who still thinks stick shifts are superior or more fun or allow you to go faster or more quickly is nuts. So, this guy is just ill informed.

    • The loss or revs while manually shifting is breathtaking. With a modern automatic, the car shifts without losing a single rev, it just goes even faster immediately. The energy delivery is nearly constant. You just step on the accelerator and go screaming up to whatever speed you want to get to. A total adrenalin rush. I suspect electric cars will become the sports car junky’s next thing. All electric drive cars put out torque that gasoline-engine cars can only dream of. It’s why railroad engines and other heavy equipment have been diesel over electric for decades. No transmission required! Just had power, and away you go.

    • At one time, knowing how to drive a stick could well have been considered a life skill, like knowing how to swim. (Our driver’s ed. classes included driving simulators with crude manual shift capabiity.) Probably still is in Europe (not sure why they cling to manuals) and much of the world, but not much in the States anymore.
      My first couple of cars, and a few others were sticks, but with the exception of a ’64 VW Beetle (wasn’t available with auto), all of those were sports cars. Friends sometimes rib me about driving “America’s Sports Car” with a “slushbox”, but I point out the same things you note…it can shift better and faster than I can, and I can always use the paddles if I want to. (and besides, it’s really more of a GT, now 😉 ) I once read of one (Italian?) race driver who was asked what his daily driver was, apparently with the expectation that it would be some exotic. He said it was an auto-trans Toyota Sienna minivan…It handled well, was reliable, and he could carry all his stuff in it.

      • The Lebanese American (or some other Middle Eastern extraction) and therefore no nonsense owner of the Mercedes Benz dealership in super pretentious Scottsdale, Arizona drives a Camry.

  10. A friend of mine is a manual transmission snob. He told me once that he prefers manual because he wants the total driving experience so I asked him if he got rid of his power steering and power brakes. And when he was going to remove his starting motor and replace it with a hand crank.

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