The Occupation Test

Print this list of occupations or copy them onto a sheet of paper.  Put a check mark next to each profession in which you know someone well enough to talk to, even if you are not close to him or her. Indicate whether that person is a relative (R), friend (F), or consequential stranger (CS). Then scroll down to see what it all means and how your answers compare to national samples.
administrative assistant 
baby sitter
computer programmer
factory operator
middle school teacher 
personnel manager 
police officer 
production manager 
security guard 
taxi driver


What It All Means

The above list was used in a survey of 3,000 employed or previously employed adults, aged 21 to 64, conducted by sociologist Nan Lin who devised the method (and graciously allowed it to be reprinted in the book). Theoretically, the more people you know up and down the occupational ladder, the greater your ability to access information and resources.

Best-known: Nurse–nearly 70% of the respondents knew at least one.

Somewhat well-known: 45% or more respondents listed a hairdresser, lawyer, police officer, computer programmer, or middle school teacher.

Not very well-known: Fewer than 20% knew a taxi driver, CEO, production manager, or a congressperson.

Least known: Hotel bell boy (2.7%)

How diverse is your social convoy?

On the low side (meaning you probably don’t have a very diverse social convoy): Knowing people in five or fewer occupations. Slightly more than 2% of those surveyed didn’t know people in any of the occupations.

Average: Knowing people in six or seven occupations.

Above average:  Around a third knew people in eight or more occupations. No one knew people in all 22 jobs–19 was the upper limit.

What About Your Consequential Strangers?

Sorting your contacts into columns shows how you know those people. Adapting Lin’s method in this way, sociologist Bonnie Erickson found that weaker ties–consequential strangers–”give substantially greater access” to a variety of occupations and therefore to people in different economic classes. In a study of the security industry (using a different and slightly short list), people had relatives in “only about two” occupations, friends in twice to three times as many job categories as relatives, and weak ties in twice as many classes as friends. You’ll probably find that your list is heavy on consequential strangers, too.

An Experiment Worth Trying

Long before I wrote the book, I suggested this simple one-day experiment to a chronically depressed friend:  As you go through your day, whenever you encounter someone, at least smile at him or her. If you can muster the courage, say hello and share a few words.  I suggested to her that it might be easiest with people she often encountered–her neighbor, the Fed Ex guy, assorted gym-goers at the Y.   Amazingly, she tried it.  Even more amazing, it worked.  She felt less alone in the world.

Now I know why it worked.  She was paying attention to her most distant consequential strangers. Everyone you connect with, however insignificant the relationship may seem, is part of your “social convoy”–the assorted characters in your life.  Your loved ones anchor you at home, but these peripheral people, give you a sense of belonging in the world.  Each, in some small way, contributes to the overall quality of your life.

You don’t have to be depressed to try this.  Let me know what happens.

They’re not “friends”–they’re consequential strangers

Just read a great article in Business Week, “What’s a Friend Worth” by Stephen Baker.  In a graphic use to illustrate the piece, quotation marks appear around the word friend, because most of our Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter contacts are relations that don’t quite qualifyas friends. They’re consequential strangers.  Some of them are merely blips on the social radar.  Others are “anchored” to a particular place or activity.  And a few, such as a long-time business associate or a trusted advisor, skirt the periphery of  friend territory.  We’ve always had peripheral people in our lives, but  now that we’re “swimming in information,” as Baker puts it, consequential strangers are more important than ever–and technology allows us to keep track of them.  The fact is, each of us has a unique “social convoy”–an entourage of people we collect as we make our way through life.  While family and good friends often go the distance, consequential strangers tend to be shorter-term recruits, brought on board for a specific reason. When you hit an unexpected detour–and need information, clarification, or a connection–they’re the ones most likely to help you find an alternate route.

Still on the same page after all these years…

The paradox of consequential stranger relationships is that on one hand you have something in common–a work project, an interest or activity, the fact that you both own Tibetan Terriers–but you also traffic in different worlds, which opens you up to a new perspective, or a different way of looking at the same issue.  In the best situations, you’re able to take in from the other, which enhances your own thinking. 

Case in point: parenting guru Ron Taffel and I live very different lives and have rarely spent time in person.  But because we’ve worked on two books together (Parenting by Heart and The Second Family), over the years we have become each other’s sounding board.  We talk, we exhange tid bits of our lives, and we indulge our mutual fascination with culture and trends.   So I wasn’t surprised to learn that in his new book, Childhood UnboundRon (without using the term) exhorts parents to call on their consequential strangers–that is, to step outside their intimate spheres to connect with other parents, with teachers, with various characters in the community.   While Ron focuses on families, the same benefits accrue to individuals, to members of organizations and corporations, or to entrepreneurs who reach beyond their inner circles.  Living today is too hectic, too complex, and too uncertain to go it alone.  And loved ones, as valuable as they might be, are not enough. 

Ron and I also agree that we have something to learn from the younger generation when it comes to connecting.  For years, he’s been warning parents not to underestimate the power of the peer culture–a force he dubbed the “second family.”    In Chapter 7, I write about the same group, the Millennials–those Masters of the Internet (now 6 to 26) who didn’t know life before the digital revolution (or barely remember it). Cyberspace is part of the air they breathe. Online and in real life, they’ve already made more connections than some of their parents and grandparents will have made in a lifetime. If the future is about creating community in a hundred different ways, these kids are already there.

Check out all of Ron’s  books–he’s one of the most original and expansive thinkers in the parenting genre. He puts it all in context.   Childhood Unbound should be read by every parent and grandparent–to understand what “childhood” really means today–but also by anyone who cares about the future of this planet.

Marketing and the Morton Salt Girl


Writing a book involves far more than a completing a manuscript (not that that is any small thing, this last book having taken me three years).  But the writing happens, for the most part, in a room somewhere–alone.  Now it’s on to promotion, work that happens in the real world–work, as research on marketing and movements confirms, that is dependent upon consequential strangers.   

So, I’ve spent the last week emailing, talking, meeting, and strategizing.  I don’t know yet whether I’ll hire any of the publicists I’ve met or which of the lecture agents I’ll sign with or whether that guy who (according to one of my PR contacts)  “gets” Internet marketing, is worth what he charges.  But after writing this book, I can’t help but see the process of making those decisions through a social lens.  I’ve already started to tap various members of my own social convoy–my agent, the team at Norton, people I’ve worked with, people who know people, social types, intellectuals, fellow journalists, and others in the media.  And from them, I’m getting everything the research on “weak ties” promises: their information, their support, advice, a fresh perspective, a good laugh, their recommendations, and from other writers, their particular brand of empathy (many have been here).

I’ve been published before, even had a best seller.  But this time is different, because I’m living my book’s message.  It’s kind of like the little girl on the Morton Salt box, pouring salt from a Morton Salt box.  Spreading the word about a book about consequential strangers is in the hands of consequential strangers.

You, go, Gail!

I just spoke with Gail, one of the members of my “community” of CS, a woman whose story and spirit really touched me. Gail is a breast cancer survivor who is featured in the chapter on health. She lives in Vancouver, BC, where she and a group of other survivors –women literally in the same boat — take part in “dragon boating,” a sport borrowed from the Chinese. When I first interviewed Gail, her cancer had returned, and she talked about how much easier it was for her to share the news with her team, than her family. After I finished the manuscript, I contacted Gail again, who shared with me that the doctors had ordered a new round of chemo. Again, she mentioned that it was easier to talk to me about what was going on than the people closest to her. I was struck by her courage and honesty and made a point of staying in touch. I worried when she didn’t return my emails or calls. Finally, a few weeks ago, she sent me an email saying that the doctors could do no more for her. They gave her two weeks to live. That was two months ago. When I last spoke with her, she was on her way out to walk her dog. She’s back on the water with her team, too. I told her that she’s “pulling an Art Buchwald”! The book will be out in August, and I imagine that she’s just spunky enough to still be here. I plan to send her a copy.