Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don ...
The cover of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest publication, “Talking to Strangers”

June 19, 2020

Dear Mr. Gladwell,

We were looking forward to reading your newest book “Talking to Strangers” as we are both fans of your work. We enjoy your ability to challenge the structures and beliefs we accept and/or hold dear by encouraging us to think about them in new ways.  In “Talking to Strangers” you theorize that everyday communication is difficult due to: 

  • truth default theory (TDT), which states that our fundamental reaction to the receipt of any new information is to first believe. TDT is only challenged when doubts and misgivings rise to the point we can no longer explain them away. 
  • illusion of transparency; this is our belief that we can reliably know what people are thinking and what their motivations are by observing their behavior. 
  • our failure to understand the importance of context. 

While these theories may be true, your application of them within the two case studies dealing with sexual assault resulted in conclusions that were simplistic and just plain wrong.  What you fail to do in discussing the horrific child sexual abuse perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky, Defensive Coordinator of the Penn State football team, and the sexual assault of Chanel Miller (formerly known as Emily Doe) who was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner on the Stanford University campus is demonstrate any understanding of the following realities:

  • Sexual assault is a crime of violence in which perpetrators seek to assert their power and control over another individual sexually. Myths and biases are held in our society that excuse or attempt to minimize sexual assault as a miscommunication. Failure to understand sexual assault as a crime of violence allows a shift toward blaming the victim/survivor as we look to the behavior of the survivor for their failure to communicate clearly. 
  • Sexual assault is experienced as a trauma which causes our bodies and brains to respond differently than we would in a regular situation. Knowledge of the body’s trauma response assists in understanding the behavior of sexual assault survivors during and after a sexual assault.
  • Context should include and acknowledge harmful systemic myths and biases that are also at play when we talk to strangers. In failing to acknowledge these systemic myths and biases, you perpetuate them. 

We’d like to draw your attention to what is missing in your analysis. 

Mr. Gladwell, in “Chapter Five; Case Study: The Boy in the Shower”, you state that, within the truth default theory (TDT), when forced to choose between two alternatives or truths, individuals will default to the “most likely” interpretation. In this situation, it seems that in addition to those who default to the “most likely” interpretation of events, there are also those who default to the “most familiar” or the “most comfortable” interpretation. You do acknowledge that the TDT challenge point is not the same for every individual, but you do not mention the various personal reasons individuals may rationalize or deny what is in front of them – self-preservation, fear, shame, racism, and sexism to name a few; these are powerful reasons to default to the most familiar and/or comfortable interpretation.

What you also fail to explain to your readers is that those who suspected something was wrong in “The Boy in the Shower” but did not act, did not do so simply because of their willingness to believe Jerry Sandusky when he said he was not sexually abusing children. In reality, their inaction was influenced by an individual and societal failure to understand sexual violence, its prevalence, and the behaviors and tools used by perpetrators to victimize children.

  • Perpetrators of child sexual abuse put themselves in a position of authority and/or trust, so they can easily have access to children, they can explain away their interest and attention as something positive, and they can win the trust of the parent/caregiver as well as others.
  • Perpetrators groom children by fulfilling needs and making them feel special by providing them with extra time, attention, gifts, and affection. Perpetrators use this special relationship to create situations in which they and the child are alone together (tutoring, coaching, special outings). Perpetrators will begin to very slowly and progressively sexualize the relationship ensuring that their behavior can be explained away as innocent encounters. 
  • Perpetrators maintain control over the child by threatening to remove the affection or extra attention. Perpetrators tell children that no one will believe them, or that the child and/or their family will get into trouble if they tell someone. 

Mr. Gladwell, you also neglect to acknowledge that there is a duty to report suspected child abuse, for every citizen. This duty does not require one to determine what is and is not true – only to report what one saw, what one heard, or what led to a concern. This chapter minimizes the responsibility that we all share to educate ourselves about child sexual abuse and to report to authorities if we have concerns about behavior so that together we can protect all of our children.

In “Chapter 8; Case Study: The Fraternity Party”, in which the sexual assault of Chanel Miller occurred, you focus your discussion on how alcohol, particularly in specific contexts, influences the interaction between strangers: transparency and decision making are impacted by myopia (only being able to focus on what is happening in front of you without context). When interviewed by Oprah Winfrey about your book, and about this chapter specifically, you stated “You take an eighteen-year-old, who is full of hormones, who’s immature, who doesn’t have much experience with girls, you take him to a frat party, you get him 2 to 2.5 times the legal limit of alcohol, so he’s completely myopic, you crank up the music, you have all kinds of mayhem around him, first of all, he’s no longer himself and secondly he is primed to do something incredibly stupid if not criminal.” Despite the new theory you present about the effects of alcohol on an individual’s ability to control their behavior, you downplay, and lack explanation for, the multitude of people who drink and don’t sexually victimize others in any context. Your discussion of context also minimizes or does not detail for your readers the fact that Brock Turner was sexually aggressive with others during the evening, that two witnesses to the assault testified that Chanel Miller was unconscious and that when confronted by witnesses who came upon Turner assaulting Ms. Miller, that he attempted to run away. 

You Know Emily Doe's Story. Now Learn Her Name. - The New York Times
Chanel Miller, author of “Know My Name”; formerly known as Emily Doe in the highly publicized Stanford sexual assault case in 2015.

Further, you do not mention that alcohol and drugs are the tools most often purposely used by perpetrators to either select their victims or render them more vulnerable to assault. You also fail to mention that perpetrators often intentionally drink themselves so that they may use the defense of diminished capacity to explain behavior that was planned and meticulously carried out.

Finally, your discussion of context within this chapter does not consider that sexual assaults may occur because of a general belief that this is okay – okay in certain circumstances; okay in certain environments; okay with certain people. The discussion of “hypersexualized chaos of fraternity parties and bars” needs to be broadened to a societal context where power imbalances and sexual violence are normalized, excused, and sometimes encouraged. Chanel Miller consumed alcohol.  As a consequence, what she expected was a hangover, not to be a victim of sexual assault committed against her while she was unconscious, outside, on the ground, next to a dumpster.  

By not providing a comprehensive discussion of communication in “Chapter Five; Case Study: The Boy in the Shower” and “Chapter 8; Case Study: The Fraternity Party,” you trivialize the experience of those who have been sexually abused, perpetuate misinformation and ignorance, and promote rape culture. 

Knowing that your works are widely read and supported, we are left deeply concerned that this book will, in easily accepted ways, reinforce harmful systemic myths and biases about sexual violence. So, we are sending a call out to both you, and your readers, to please consider having a look for what has been missed in this book.


Sandra Paulsen, Member, Board of Directors, Saskatoon Sexual Assault & Information Centre

Faye Davis, Executive Director, Saskatoon Sexual Assault & Information Centre

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