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In “Talking to Strangers,” Gladwell's Insights Hit Close to Home

by on September 06, 2019 4:30 PM

“With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” –Joe Paterno

With those 11 words, issued as part of a statement in the early days of the Sandusky scandal, Joe Paterno became a central yet misplaced focus of the story. How did that happen?

This and much more becomes clear in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book “Talking to Strangers.” The book’s powerful lessons address our inability to process the meaning and intent of people we don’t know. For an increasingly disconnected world “Talking to Strangers” is a book of tremendous importance. 

Gladwell’s chapters change understandings of high-profile stories we think we knew well. Having lived on the inside of one of the cases Gladwell cites, “Talking To Strangers” hits home with amazing accuracy.

Gladwell writes about society’s common failings, starting with the concept of “Truth Default Theory.” Simply, we “default” to believe that people are honest and readily accept explanations from people concealing sinister actions. As Gladwell points out, even parents of Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar’s victims were among his defenders, initially. Some of them were in examination rooms while he engaged in “medical procedures” that were part of his sexual assaults.

They defaulted to believe someone who carried the weight and credibility of authority. But those parents are not alone.

In the Sandusky case, highly-trained, experienced professionals with advanced degrees saw Sandusky interact with children for years and repeatedly missed signs. Yet the narrative focused on Penn State President Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno rather than those professionals.

Never once did we suspect that Sandusky’s charity and his life’s work were anything but noble endeavors. Joe Paterno’s own kids and grandchildren (including my children) were around Sandusky. If we suspected even the slightest inclination of that kind of behavior would we have allowed that?

“Talking to Strangers” explains how people repeatedly miss these things. Savvy investors and SEC regulators missed the signs of Bernie Madoff’s fraud. Counterintelligence investigators staring at massive evidence missed detecting colleagues who were double agents. Even experienced judges make the right call on granting bail at a rate barely higher than 50 percent. 

But as society’s cynicism has grown, our default is changing. We default to explanations we’re programmed to believe or that we want to believe. Sometimes that explanation is planted in our minds.

As the Sandusky story broke in November 2011, the grand jury presentment started with an outright lie about what a witness had told Joe Paterno. Gladwell writes, “The prosecutors, in order to serve their own ends, had turned gray into black and white.” 

By 2011, after more than a decade of stories about Catholic Church cover-ups for priests, this was an explanation that prosecutors could sell to society and the media. That scandal created this default belief:  powerful men always cover up child sexual abuse to protect their institution’s pristine image.

The presentment’s false opening reinforced that belief, unleashing a news cycle onslaught strong enough for many to toss out the presumption of innocence.

Gladwell writes of the similar media blitz that engulfed the Amanda Knox case: “The three were arrested, charged, convicted and sent to prison—with every step of the way chronicled obsessively by the tabloid press.”

As the Sandusky case broke the media laid siege to Joe Paterno’s house and the Penn State football offices. Across town the offices of Sandusky’s charity, The Second Mile, were clear of the media assault. The intensifying media narrative, driven in real time by newly empowered social media, targeted Penn State football. Our people inside were powerless to stop the surge. 

Similarly, of Knox becoming the media target, Gladwell writes: “It is completely inexplicable in hindsight. There was never any physical evidence linking either Knox or her boyfriend to the crime.”

The same was true for Paterno. He was cleared by the Attorney General of any type of cover-up and was cited for being honest and cooperative in reporting the only allegation ever brought to him. But the media train steamrolled these explanations.

So why did this go so wrong? Gladwell’s concept of “Transparency” is where we read signals and actions of people as being a key to ascertaining their guilt. We have hardened misperceptions of how both innocent and guilty people should act. 

Gladwell cites research showing that our assumptions are not good indicators. Our assumptions only work when those we’re judging are not “mismatched.” If a guilty person “acts innocent” they fool us, and if an innocent person “acts guilty” we condemn them.

Starting with the release of the grand jury presentment, in November 2011, the “mismatch” was everywhere.

By including Paterno’s name in a publicly released presentment mislabeled as a “Finding of Fact” the prosecutors created guilt by association. In a 2013 issue of the Tennessee Law Review, University of Arkansas Law Professor Brian Gallini wrote that Paterno’s naming in the presentment was unnecessary. It also would’ve been illegal in a federal case, as well as cases in almost every other state.

Gallini wrote, “Allowing the public to view sensitive grand jury documents — untested by a proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard — harms the reputation of any named third party.” 

A plan to address the issues publicly in real time was killed when Penn State President Graham Spanier was told to stand down. Paterno was ready to address those issues, but the administration’s last-minute cancellation of his press conference looked to outsiders like a sign of guilt-driven internal turmoil.

A day later, Paterno announced his plans to retire at season’s end, which he’d been planning for several months with no idea that any of this was coming. He stated, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more,” neither as an admission of guilt nor culpability. Rather it was an honest man stating he would have acted differently if he ‘d understood the full scope of this behavior. Who among us wouldn’t feel that way?

But because society equates remorse with guilt his statement was “mismatched.” Many writers recontextualized the statement by ignoring the qualifier of “with the benefit of hindsight.” Others misquoted Paterno’s words as “I should have done more.”

But for those who knew Joe Paterno, we knew a man who always looked first at himself and where he could have done a better job — even when blame for a setback clearly belonged elsewhere.

That night, although neither Paterno nor Spanier had even been charged with a crime, they were fired. Paterno’s six-decade reputation for integrity should’ve earned him the benefit of the doubt. But for society, innocent people don’t get fired, so “mismatched” responses led to a false guilty judgment.

Other elements of Gladwell’s book will also be controversial, but frank discourse is vital to today’s society. His detailed analysis of college sexual assaults in drinking environments should be understood by parents and students alike. Historical data offers insight into changes in Police procedures that led to tragedy. No one wishing to seriously discuss these issues should do so without getting the message that misunderstanding strangers can lead to failure.

“Talking to Strangers” highlights the danger of misperceptions hardened into an accepted but false reality. Default the truth has probably even devolved into seeking and accepting only explanations that comply with what we want or feel to be true.

While Gladwell’s Sandusky chapter is not focused specifically on the journey of Penn State, my father and my family, that journey is a witness to the truth in Gladwell’s work. I defaulted to a truth of Jerry Sandusky, a man given a gold seal of approval by experts at state agencies who placed thousands of children with his state-wide charity and allowed him to adopt six children.

People defaulted the truth about Penn State and Joe Paterno because they believed that powerful institutions always cover up crimes. The misleading grand jury presentment led to a mismatched university response driving a media and society default to misplaced guilt.

Two months after being fired, Joe Paterno died leaving a notepad found on his nightstand. Some of his last written words were scrawled by a hand unsteadied by the ravages of cancer treatments.

“silver lining—maybe some good can come from all of this.”

He hoped newfound attention for these issues might open society’s eyes. His wife, Sue Paterno, commissioned a vital February 2013 report by former FBI profiler Jim Clemente to educate society about “nice-guy” offenders. 

But people who didn’t know Sue Paterno’s heart cynically viewed the report as an attempt to whitewash their inaccurate “defaulted” history. Powerful people ignored the report because their inability to understand her intent kept their minds closed. 

Clemente’s report laid out specific behavior of people like Larry Nassar. Offenders might even be doctors brazen enough to conduct assault behavior right in front of parents. Had someone at USA Gymnastics or Michigan State read that report in early 2013, perhaps Nassar could’ve been detected earlier. 

Gladwell’s important and insightful book asks a vital question: “Because we do not know how to talk to strangers, what do we do when things go awry with strangers?”

Society’s future stability will belong to those with the necessary tools to understand and work with people we do not know. “Talking to Strangers” is an important lesson on how to develop those tools. Take it from someone who knows.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Talking to Strangers,” is out on Sept. 10. Jay Paterno received an advanced copy.


State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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