Was Michael Jackson Your Consequential Stranger?

[Pardon the length of this offering; it was first posted–with minor changes–on the Psychology Today website, as “Michael, We Think We Know Ya.”] 

We feel like we knew Michael Jackson. We share our tidbits and exchange questions about his life with one another as if we did. He spent hours studying movies of  Fred Astaire.  He had a horribly abusive father.  Was he a pedophile? Did he want to die? In life and now even more so, we can’t help wondering what it must have been like to be him. He was like a neighborhood character, larger than life but still part of our world. And now we feel a strange sense of entitlement about knowing him.

Celebrities can feel like our acquaintances. They’re neither family members nor close friends, but we know facts about their lives and their histories–similar to knowing that Joe at the deli has a son in Iraq, or that the super in our building goes for a run at the end of every work day. We “knew” Michael for decades, or at least the public Michael. And as is obvious from the recent post-mortem, he elicited in many of us, a range of strong emotions. It seemed like a relationship.

But it was one-way; Michael knew nothing about us. At least Joe knows that you like smoked turkey. In fact, celebrities can’t open to themselves to strangers. There are too many banging at the door. Admittedly, some of us can be intrusive. We can’t seem to stop ourselves from staring at Candice Bergen who happens to be eating dinner at the next table–Nobu, 2004–or from commenting on Ed Burns’ baby-calming strategy. I can’t remember the restaurant, only that he was hiding out near the restroom area. It was in the early 00s after my first Baby Whisperer book came out. His response to my carefully worded advice (“It’s better if you don’t jiggle him so much”) was to look up at me and glare as if to say, “Who are you?” He was clearly not interested in opening the door.

The truth is, if you’re a celebrity, it’s probably not a good idea to court strangers. Rachel Maddow made this point when I interviewed her last summer, just as she was poised at the edge of stardom. She sounded a little wistful when she told me that she had already begun to need social padding–assistants whose  main function was to cushion her against outsiders, vetting and blocking all the people who suddenly wanted to “know” her.

Sounds pretty lonesome, which is why a few of the famous fight back. Remember all the talks about Obama’s Blackberry and his desire to somehow counteract “the isolation of the Presidency”? Perhaps he’s just charming the pants off us, but he still appears to be genuinely determined not to give up his casual connections–other parents at soccer games, the guys at the burger joint. His ease in public fuels our fantasy that we know him; he’s one of us. But unless your child happens to go to Sidwell Friends, you don’t even have a casual relationship with him.

Bottom line: The famous are not our consequential strangers. But that realization begs another question: Will the Internet and the phenomenon Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everbody) calls the “mass amateurization” of media change all that? Ironically, either because of the cult of celebrity or as next stage in its evolution, lots of would-be fans now want wants their own fifteen minutes of fame. And, thanks to digital technology, they can have at least fifteen minutes of screen time, 140 characters at a time. We are all potential nano-stars.  You don’t have to be “discovered.”  Just stand in front of your Flip camera and upload youself to YouTube.

I doubt if a Michael Jackson will someday emerge from this more democratic world of broadcasting, but who knows?  There are already Internet-made stars, among them techies, stay-at-home mothers, online marketing gurus, deep thinkers, and retired sex workers who quote inspirational sayings.  I’ll bet you’re on the email list of some niche-celeb right now.  Besides the fact that you both adore King Charles Spaniels, books, or vegan cuisine, part of the attraction is that, unlike old-fashioned luminaries, she seems accessible. You start by visiting her website. You follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Slowly, you become part of her ad-hoc community. She emails you and writes back when you send her a comment. You might wonder whether she sent the same message to countless others, or whether one of her underlings is at the keyboard, but you’re happy to hear from her nonetheless. She has become someone you know, like, and share ideas with–a consequential stranger.

But depending on how many others she attracts, in time will she really be any different from a mega-star like Michael Jackson or the hugely popular Rachel Maddow? At some point, your emails, IMs, and DMs will wither under the weight of the hundreds or thousands of other messages she receives daily. She might know you by your screen name, shake your hand warmly, and sign your program at a conference. Eventually, though, her fame will become something she needs to “handle.”  She’ll don social padding, too, keeping her distance from you and most of her minions. Granted, in the normal course of life, most casual relationship come and go. Is she any different from a good friend who becomes successful and forgets the little people she left behind? Or were you never really connected in the first place? One difference between her and the old-time celebs: She won’t need bodyguards to fend you off, just a private email account.

Starting Over: Casual Acquaintances Are More Important Than You Think

[This offering appeared earlier today on more.com with the headline: “It’s not just who you know; it’s the variety of people you know that opens the door to new career possibilities.]

You can’t miss Lily’s property.  It has a storybook quality: a white picket fence hugged by a row of green plants sprouting yellow small flowers that spill onto the sidewalk.  On the other side, between fence and house, is a wild profusion of pink roses, clusters of lilies, and bursts of other showy flowers whose names are unknown to me. There’s a grape arbor, a gazebo, and several little sitting areas punctuated by bricks and stone pathways.  If Lily’s in her garden, I rarely miss the chance to compliment her hard  work.  On this particular day, after a bit of small talk, I asked how much time she spends there.  Her answer—on average two hours, but sometimes as many as eight—compelled me to ask, “What do you do in real life?”

At it happens (increasingly, nowadays) 48-year-old Lily had been laid off from a staff development job in the Boston public schools (“They just had no money”).  She didn’t seem upset.  It was almost July, she explained, and now she could spend the next several months in her garden.  Besides, she already had  “a promising prospect,” a job lead that came from one of her neighbors, whose garden Lily also tends.  For example, a while back, Lily decided that the guy across the street, “ought to have a little garden.”  So she planted one for him.  In turn, when he heard about Lilly’s being laid off, he invited her over. “He just sat me down and said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m going to do everything I can to help you.’”

Lily’s story didn’t surprise me. Starting over usually involves people other than your family or close friends.  Our loved ones know what we know, whereas neighbors, coworkers, former bosses, and the guy at the corner deli connect us to information and opportunity. Call them  “consequential strangers.” Most of us have a wealth of these “weak ties,” as sociologists call them– unremarkable relationships that we tend to take for granted or, at best, undervalue.  And no wonder: Most relationship gurus focus on partners, parents, and children.  So why would you give a second thought to that pleasant conversation when Sam at the dry cleaners noticed your new hair cut or the delightful discovery that your child’s teacher is related to your dentist’s wife.  And yet those are the very people who are likely to give you advice, a connection, or support when you least expect it.  Lily agrees that if her neighbor hadn’t given her a job lead, someone else in her  “social convoy”–the collection of people she’s amassed over the years–probably would have.  “My last two jobs came through a former coworker,” she recalled, “and the one before that, through a friend  of a friend.”

To whom would you turn in case of a major upheaval in your life? Job loss? Divorce? An unexpected move?  Surprising research shows that most of us need not look further than our own social convoy, especially if it is comprised of intimates and consequential strangers from all walks of life.   It makes you “smarter” when you interact with different kinds of people. You learn a little from one, gather another tid bit from someone else.  You become flexible, knowledgeable about a lot of subjects, and better at conversational banter.  As a result, you can socialize anywhere–and travel up the career ladder. Most important, each one of your casual connections is a hidden  resource.  And the simple exchange of sharing a problem also sends a powerful message to your psyche: You are not alone.  

To find out how diverse your convoy is, take the Occupation Test to see how you compare to national averages.

Wanna Know Who Your CS Are?

Check out your email address book or Facebook “friends.”  Depending on the total number, ten, twenty, at most thirty are close or somewhat close friends; the rest, in varying degrees, are consequential strangers.

Can An Intimate Become a Consequential Stranger?

Relationships are dynamic, living entities; like people, they change over time. A consequential stranger can morph into a good friend or even a lover. But what about sliding in the other direction along the relationship continuum–away from soul mate and closer to stranger? Does your dear college friend move into CS territory when your lives no longer intersect? Can someone you once loved and had sex with become a consequential stranger?

Several years ago, when I was first contemplating a book about casual relationships, I found out an answer to the first question.  (It may not be the answer.) After not seeing my college roommates, Gail and Tina, for several years, we made a lunch date.  En route in the car, they asked what I was writing, and I launched into a long-winded explanation of the project, ending with, “So you see, you’re my consequential strangers.”

The next day, Gail was indignant on the phone:  “Tina and I can’t be your consequential strangers. We knew your mother and father. We spent time in Deal [where my family had a summer home]. We know everything about you, including all your old boyfriends.”  They had a point. Some of my college friends were, in fact, consequential strangers–people I’d never have thought to invite home for the weekend. I didn’t stay in touch with them over the summers nor had I in the intervening years since we graduated. They were of college.  But Gail and Tina were not consequential strangers and never could be. Despite the distance, the gaps between visits, and the different paths we took, they were still my friends.

Friendship is one thing; it’s a little dicier when you add sex to the mix.  One of Karen’s studies, “The Best of Ties, The Worst of Ties,” suggests that we experience more ambivalence toward mates, whereas we tend to see our consequential strangers in a negative or positive light. Although her study didn’t look at what happens after relationships end, my research on divorce (and personal experience) tells me that ambivalence lingers long after the love drains out of a partnership.

Just how far away from the soul mate end of the continuum a breakup takes you depends on many factors, but one thing is sure: The two of you will morph into something different.  There are three possibilities as I see them, based on years of interviewing people about their relationships:

Option 1. It’s impossible to pick up the pieces, so you try to put as much distance as possible between you. You will want to think of the other person as a stranger but even if you never see him again, you’ll still be connected by anger.

Option 2. You continue to be in each other lives and–in time–become not only “just friends” but good friends. You may not see each other regularly, but in a lesser way, you’re still there for one another. This is most likely to happen in couples without children, where the parties mutually wanted the split, and with female couples. (For those of you who watched The L Word, I don’t just mean lesbians: Many a married woman has had a same-sex affair earlier in her life–out of curiosity, bisexuality, drunkenness, or all three. Once it’s over, she doesn’t want to lose the close friendship, which was what attracted her in the first place.)

Option 3. You become consequential strangers. Even when couples have bad breakups, this can happen, especially if you have to be in each other’s lives– let’s say you share children or grandchildren, or belong to the same church. It’s better to act like consequential strangers than to go on hating her guts. You no longer kiss hello. You make small talk. You ask about work and leisure time, not personal matters. How’s the real estate market? Seen any good films? You still play tennis with Gary?  Granted, in a quiet moment when you’re staring at her from across the room, you remember the crazy things you did in bed together–but you can’t imagine going there again. You don’t have to; she’s just a consequential stranger.

We Need Child Consequential Strangers, Too

Spending a few days with my daughter and her family, it occurred to me that one of the reasons parenting is so hard is that the adults have no frame of reference. Do other kids act like this at the dinner table?  Do other parents feel so frustrated at times that they want to cry?  Do they cry? One way of getting those answers is by talking to other parents. Another way is to connect with your child’s friends–the youngest consequential strangers in your convoy.

Child consequential strangers provide a window into a different world: what kids are into, how they talk, their fears. And it’s easier to listen because you don’t have the same emotional reaction when they lobby for a Wii or complain about their own parents’ insistence on a 10 o’clock curfew.

Ron Taffel grasped this reality nearly a decade ago when he began to invite teens’ peers into therapy sessions. Whether the guest was a good friend or a teammate of the client’s, his or her presence enhanced Ron’s understanding of his client’s daily habitat and the forces that weighed on him.  Along similar lines–and this is a subject of some debate–teachers who connect with students on their Facebook pages see a potential for information, connection and mentoring. (An excellent discussion of these issues was sparked by Dana Boyd, an authority on teens’ online social habits, in a post on her blog.)

The truth is, even if you’re not a parent, teacher, or therapist, you probably already have child consequential strangers in your life–your cousin’s children, your friend’s grandchildren, the kids next door.  And it’s a good idea to connect with them. I have a 14 year old “handy man” who waters my plants, shovels my walk when I’m gone, and helps me with gardening and heavy lifting. In our occasional conversations, I’ve heard about his track meets, his efforts to raise money for an African village, his summer plans. And when I wanted to find some “hip” music, I asked him. He naturally suggested a group I’d never heard of. Still, I’m enriched by our relationship, and I’d like to think he is, too.

Not so incidentally, such intergenerational connections might help change young people’s minds about their elders. As I report in Chapter 6 of the book, of all the unconscious attitudes that we harbor–white over black, skinny over fat, straight over gay, able-bodied over disabled–the bias against “old”  is the strongest!  (Test your own “implicit attitudes.”)

Test: Friend or Consequential Stranger?

Our vocabulary of relationships is limited. We tend to use the word “friend” for most of our connections, but many of our everyday contacts are actually consequential strangers (acquaintances). Think of someone you know but aren’t sure how to accurately describe the relationship. Then take this Friend or Consequential Stranger? test to look at the differences.  The test is most interesting when you apply it to several people–or fifty.  It will make you think about the complexity of social ties–and the different elements that make each relationship unique.  Then look at the (unscientific but probably accurate) scoring below.

As you probably guessed, the A statements are more likely to relate to consequential strangers, the B statements to your intimates.  However, all relationships span a continuum from complete stranger to soul mate. Although one “territory” blends into the next, and relationships can change over time, these statements can help you approximate where each person might fall on your own continuum.

More than 17 B’s: The person is somewhere near the soul mate side of your continuum–-a partner, parent, child, or close friend who is part of your inner circles.

5-7 A’s and 13-15 B’s: The person is in friend territory but not necessarily part of your inner circle.

10 A’s and 10 B’s:   The person is in the grey zone between consequential stranger and friend, perhaps someone who started out as an acquaintance and is now moving along the continuum toward the friend end, or an acquaintance who was once important and is now less so. It also might be someone you’ve known for a long time or see fairly often but who doesn’t qualify as a close friend.

13-15 A’s and 5-7 B’s: The person is a close consequential stranger, an acquaintance you associate with a particular place or activity.  You might use the label a “friend,”  but the relationship is probably based on a particular aspect of your life–your work, leisure pursuits, volunteer work.   You might even spend a considerable amount of time together, but the person is on the periphery of your social life not at its center.

17 or more A’s: The person is probably in solid consequential stranger territory–one of those wash-and-wear relationships that requires very little maintenance.

Why We Need Being Spaces

An entire chapter of Consequential Strangers is devoted to being space, a term coined by trendwatcher Reinier Evans in 2003 to describe Starbucks and other  commercial environments that did away with harsh fluorescent lighting and plastic chairs, so that customers would be encouraged to hang out.  The sociological underpinnings of the concept are embodied in Ray Oldenburg’s notion of  the “third place.”   Neither home nor office, a third place can be a tavern or coffee shop or public plaza or the lunchroom at a company–any place you can kick back, schmooze, and just be.   And of course the notion of creating these kinds of environments–whether you’re talking about a stores or an entire city–is what propels the new urbanism movement.   Being spaces are safe, civilized, welcoming places where strangers can become consequential strangers.   This video, created by independent filmmaker John Paget, winner of a Congress for the New Urbanism charter award, shows why we need to design and build more being space:

More News on the Experiment

A follow-up to my May 28 post, An Experiment Worth Trying:   One of my neighbors brought me a torn-out Reader Digest page–letters on the December issue–that she knew I’d appreciate.  The first letter, from a woman read: 

I served in the Air Force for 28 years, and one of the first things I was taught was to greet everyone, regardless of rank.  This simple act establishes a connection–whether it’s between spouses or strangers–that really does make a difference. I hope this catches on.

Another talked about a visit to China where he’d practiced saying ni hao to anyone he encountered.  At first he assumed that because most passersby responded with a smile, that Chinese people were more friendly than Americans.  Then he tested  his assumption:

Back at home, I read Joe Kita’s article and decided to try it here.  Guess what? Americans can be just as friendly.

Naturally, I then looked up the article, “What If You Said Hello to Everyone in Your Path for  Month.”  Kita, who draws on research showing the salutary effects of social connection on health and productivity, saw the results for himself: 

After a month of doing it, I feel lighter and more connected and I have a better sense of well-being. 

If we put our minds to it, many (perhaps most?) of us can  master the smile-and-hello stage–and will be the better for it.  But Juan Mann, an Australian man, took the idea a step further with his “free hugs campaign.” Check out his official website and video.  No researchers have been called in to measure the effects of Mann’s work, but you can’t argue his intent:  “to reach out and hug a stranger to brighten up their lives.” 

Old Folks (Not) At Home

With all this talk about social media, let’s not forget that as far back as smoke signals and tin cans, resourceful people have always found ways to connect and communicate. (For a great review of a recent and yet long-ago time–the nineties–check out this article .) One thing is different now: It’s easier–and cheaper–to keep in touch.

So why should anyone be surprised that “older” people have found their way to–gasp!–sites like Facebook and LinkedIn.  They are using them the way they once wrote postcards or made the occasional phone call to an old army buddy.  Online venues are great for rediscovering acquaintances from the long-lost past and meeting new people as well. And unless illness or geographic isolation stops them, research shows, they’re bringing those encounters into the real world as well.

Staying connected and involved are the keys to graceful aging–and that means stepping outside our inner circles. In fact, it’s the people we don’t know so well who are more likely to…

Introduce us to a novel activity or experience. The people closest to us know what we know and often think the way we think. Make a new acquaintance or join a new group, and it opens a new door.

Allow us to exercise a different persona. Our loved ones can finish our sentences for us, but consequential strangers wonder who we are. With them we can be a blank slate all over again. Members of the Red Hat Society, according to its founder, “don’t have to conform to an old image or explain that they are changing certain aspects of themselves.” Try that with your partner or a really close friend!

Remind us that we are, indeed, part of something bigger. When you’re wielding a hammer as part of a Habitat crew or schmoozing with a old fraternity brother on Facebook, you’re connected to the greater mass of humanity.

5 Steps Anyone Can Take to Raise Their Social IQ

Someone at a speaker’s bureau recently asked, “What about people who aren’t natural connectors? What do they do?” Her question implied that Consequential Strangers is about the need to “network,” but she missed the point: The message of the book is to broaden your social awareness–which anyone can do, regardless of his or her personality.

Granted, certain kinds of folks–extroverts, city dwellers, salespeople, media types, and women–find it relatively easy to meet people and make small talk. As a result, they probably accumulate more consequential strangers than people who are on the shy side or in an isolated setting. But almost everyone–even someone in tiny Medaryville, Indiana, population 549 at last count–has some consequential strangers. My point is that no matter who you are, you can make the most of them.

1. Become aware of the consequential strangers in your life.  Of anyone who is not part of your inner cirle, ask yourself, “Where do I see and spend time with this person?” Chances are, it’s a place or activity–work, the gym, a school, church, your commute, your neighborhood, the ball field.  The goal is to see your life through a social lens: as a cavalcade of relationships, not just a series of events.

2. Look at the resources you already have. Revisit your history through this perspective. What has each the person given you? And what can you count on in the future? Advice? A laugh? Gossip? Job leads? Agita ? The greater the variety of people in your life, the more resources you have. (Take the Occupation Test –posted on May 31–to see whether your convoy is diverse.)

3. Scout out new possibilities. Give a stranger a moment’s thought. You can choose not to engage, but you could also take one little step. Smile, nod, say hello. Use the person’s name; ask something about him; find a small patch of common ground. Offer a tidbit about yourself but be appropriate. (Don’t open the conversation with a true confession.) The exchange will be pleasant (because you are). You might never see that person again, but if you do, you can pick up where you left off.

4. Add to your convoy as needed. On a good day, most of us are flooded in information and have to make complex decisions–what car to buy, where to send the kids to school, what to do with the 401K, how to build a website, whether or not to Twitter. And in crisis–illness, accident, divorce, depression (our own or the economy’s), it’s even harder. We simply can’t do it alone–or just with loved ones.

5. Recruit new people into your convoy who have the expertise, information, or empathy you need.Seek out professional help if you can afford it or ask people you know to recommend people they know. Also, go to places (a support group, a convention, an association, a cyber café, a web community) where you’re likely to meet a stranger who fits the bill. And then go back to #3 and turn that stranger into a consequential stranger!

A word to the shy: Start small, build social muscle slowly, and watch the results.