The Rhetoric of Outliers

Lindsay Hayden

I delicate this chapter to my mom, who taught me that everything I need is already inside me.

Keywords: Difference, Superiority, Sports, Inspiration, Psychology


My name is Lindsay Hayden and I am a student, friend, and motivated student at Wake Forest University. I am motivated to learn about what makes other people different and how we can all achieve success. As someone who often felt “different” growing up, I am excited to share my rhetorical analysis of the term “Outlier”’ and how it can both alienate and motivate individuals. This paper is directed at college-aged students, who are navigating their place in this world and working to analyze what makes us all different and what makes us the same.


First things first, what makes an outlier? The term outlier has made its way into modern rhetoric to describe a certain type of person, place, or thing. Originating in the statistics field, an outlier is simply defined as “an observation or measurement that is unusually large or small relative to the other values in a data set” (Kirk, 2007). How did a term so scientific and statistical pervade its way into modern language in a way that has such a dramatic effect? The term outlier provides context for elaborating upon what makes someone or something stand out from the crowd, providing for a rhetorical analysis of both the word and the concept at large. Scholars have begun to lean into the idea of Outliers as a marker of what makes someone or something “different” which will open the door for me to rhetorically analyze how the word outlier can, in a broader context, encourage differences. This paper will analyze the term outlier and how it contributes to the broader concept of a Rhetoric of Difference. The following pages will analyze the term outlier through the lens of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2012 novel “Outliers”, in addition to numerous sources that work to define outliers in a scientific, political, and social context. In addition to discussing these aspects of the word Outlier, hopefully this paper will open up your eyes to the way you view outliers, or those we consider different, and the influence this has on the rhetoric in today’s society.


In recent years, the concept of Outliers was popularized by social psychologist and New York Times best-selling author, Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s book Outliers took the world by storm, selling over two million copies and spending eleven weeks at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. As a reader of “Outliers” myself, I was immediately captivated by the candid tone in which Gladwell discussed the way in which we view each other and ourselves.

With a reception like that, it’s safe to say Gladwell struck a chord with his audience with his message in “Outliers”. “Outliers” simply attempts to unpack what makes CEOs, elite athletes, spectacular musicians, among others, so successful. He faces the question, “What makes these people different?”, head-on with a series of studies, anecdotes, and observations. In the first half of his book, he concludes that in a lot of cases, the development of many “outliers” happened largely by chance, turning most people’s idea of being an outlier on its head. Gladwell unpacks how he came to realize that in Canada, professional hockey players all seem to be born in January, February, and March. He explains that this is because, throughout the lifetime of a Canadian hockey player, they are consistently compared to the players born in their same calendar year (ex. 10-year-olds play other 10-year-olds). In the physical maturation stages of a child’s life, 12 months is a lot of time (Gladwell, 2008). This means that the young players who demonstrate more physical prowess at a young age, subsequently receive more attention, more coaching, and greater opportunities to play hockey as compared to their smaller, younger counterparts. These professional hockey players who are still massively skilled, become outliers partly through the situational factors that they were born into. While the term may not be directly used throughout their life, young hockey players know when they are an outlier or prodigy, and subsequently, those who are not outliers or prodigies are taught “their place” too. The psychological effect of such a label has massive implications on confidence, growth, and development and the very identity of what makes one individual different from someone else. In the world of Canadian hockey, those players born in the first few months of the year are able to identify with a “place” that the rest of the players aren’t, and that place is at the top of their craft. Those born in the remaining months of the year lack the ability to find a “place” in the hockey world, leading to lower retention rates, lower participation, lower success rates, and in the end, less professional hockey careers.


Despite the way the term outlier can create division, it can also be used to positively emphasize important counter-narratives that exist in our society. The significance of rhetoric is specifically prominent in the concept of storytelling. The art of storytelling is one of the most important facets of humanity – it is how children are taught lessons, connect with one another, and establish societal norms that have prevailed since the beginning of time. In the work of Communication scholar Alexandra Lippert, the concept of the “outlier narrative” is outlined. The outlier narrative is a genre of storytelling that “resists prevailing discourses, practices, and patterns that govern prevailing notions of well-being, gender, race, sexuality, etc.”, and then subsequently moves into the political sphere to make a lasting change (Lippert 2017). Outlier narratives tell the story of people who exist in opposition to the way the traditional, stereotypical status quo says they should function. Whether it be a first-generation college student, young mother, or a CEO from a humble background, the stories of people who exist as outliers in accordance with what the normative standards of our society expect of them, open doors for others to follow them. In this sense, the term outlier serves as a vehicle for change, rather than a stigmatization or mechanism to create division.


Despite all this evidence, the question still arises: Is the term outlier different from any other term used to describe differences among people? Although the concept of an outlier can be described many different ways, the term outlier gains significance in the terms existence in the statistical and scientific fields. An outlier, as defined in this context, can be statistically measured, establishing objectively the relationship between the outlier and everything else. Applying a scientific term in a sociological and rhetorical context allows us to see the significance of the difference acknowledged when using the term.


The term outlier is an excellent example of Lisa Flores’ work defining a rhetoric of difference. Flores broadly defines the term rhetoric of difference as “repudiating mainstream discourse and espousing self-and group-created discourse”. Furthermore, a rhetoric of difference is used to create a space for those viewed as different from the rest of society for whatever reason that may be. The term outlier serves as a mechanism for creating this space, as exemplified by the prior examples in this essay. In Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis, a space is being defined for elite Canadian hockey players that leaves everyone else in limbo. While the term used to define this situation and others like it may not always be specifically the word outlier, the use of any word that establishes a rhetoric of difference has similar implications. In a more positive context, the word outlier can establish a place for the placeless. Whether it be the Chicana feminists creating their own unique identity amid a cultural divide, or a first-generation college student defying the limits that their socioeconomic or cultural situation has placed upon them, being a part of an “outlier narrative” can reveal what is possible when society chooses to embrace the differences of others rather than use them to alienate others.


Everyone is an outlier in some way and choosing to use the idea that differences are an advantage can be the rising tide that lifts all boats. Malcolm Gladwell explores this in “Outliers” in a way that redefines what makes people different and pulls back the curtain about what makes someone an outlier. While it can be used both positively or negatively, when you establish a positive rhetoric of difference, there can be a place for everyone, no matter the differences between us.


Works Cited


Flores, Lisa A. “Creating Discursive Space through a Rhetoric of Difference.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 82, no. 2, May 1996, p. 142.


Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Little, Brown and Co., 2008.


Gray, Rodney. “Outliers: The Story of Success.” Strategic Communication Management, vol. 13, no. 3, Apr. 2009, p. 3.


Kirk, Roger E. “Outliers.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by George Ritzer, vol. 7, Blackwell, 2007, pp. 3349-3350. Gale eBooks, Accessed 14 Sept. 2021.


Lippert, Alexandra. “When the Plus Sign Is a Negative: Challenging and Reinforcing Embodied Stigmas Through Outliers and Counter-Narratives.” Health Communication, vol. 34, no. 4, Apr. 2019, pp. 511–514.


Smith, Voncile M. “The Importance of Definition: Symbolic Interaction, Mass Media, and Politics of Communication.” Florida Communication Journal, vol. 12, no. 1, Mar. 1984, pp. 1–9.



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Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Lindsay Hayden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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