So Many Consequential Strangers…So Little Time

Just read a great post on mashable.com, “How to Deal with Social Networking Overload.”  I thought it was very good advice, and added my own two cents in a comment, which naturally reflects my last three years of research and writing:

I think of sites in terms of their family/friend-to-CS ratio.  CS are people outside your intimate circles–and they comprise the bulk of our daily encounters.  Our intimates know what we know, whereas our CS take us “beyond the familiar.” In each of my social network sites, I have many, many more CS (even though the site calls them “friends”), and on Twitter, strangers as well.  True, Facebook does has a good number of family, friends, rediscovered friends as well as consequential strangers from the past.

One of the suggestions in Alexandra Levitt’s how-to was “set boundaries”–reserve certain sites for family and real freinds, and others for business contacts–but, as I wrote in my comment…

…it’s too late for me!  The best I can do is restrict my online social time,  And that’s getting harder the more connections I make–even on the sites I regularly visit.

On Facebook I now have my “friends” (who are mostly CS, with a smattering of family and close friends thrown in–a mirror of my real life social scene), and I also check in on the CS group I started.  I’ve been suggesting that people ask their friends and CS to join that group, and overnight we picked up more members.  I like that, and it’s great to connect, but the more people I connect with, the harder it is to stay connected, but I’m determined to at least try.

On Twitter, for instance, whenever someone follows me, I contact them, asking, how did you find me and why are you following me?  I don’t bother when the “person” seems more like a bot, or when the photo is an obvious come-on.  (Come on, really–do men actually anyone with big breasts?)   Many don’t bother answer, I think because everyone’s out there to rack up numbers.  But I, perhaps naively, want to connect.   But some do, and I’ve met some really interesting CS that way, who introduce me to now ideas or just say something wonderful about themselves that tugs at my heart.  Keep ’em comin’ I say–that’s what consequential strangers do for us.

I may eat those words, of course, because I’m already spending more time than I ever imagined tweeting, blogging, answering emails, looking at other people’s links, reading other people’s blogs.  Only time, or my lack of it, will tell.  Ergo, my new bumper sticker:

So many consequential strangers, so little time.

High Line: A New York Fairy Tale

Everyone’s talking (at least in New York) about the new High Line park in lower Manhattan, an urban oasis built on old elevated railway overlooking the Hudson River. It’s not quite complete, but verdant enough for picnics, photos, and parades of people–18,000 to 20,000 visitors on the weekend.  In my parlance, it’s not just a new park, it’s a “being space.”  And, as reported in a recent New York Times article, High Line is doing its job–encouraging people to connect:

It even inspires crusty New Yorkers to behave as if they were strolling down Main Street in a small town rather than striding the walkway of a hyper-urban park — routinely smiling and nodding, even striking up conversations with strangers.

“Here people tend to be more friendly,” Kathy Roberson, who is retired but does volunteer work with the poor, said on Saturday. “Those same people, you might see them someplace else and, you know,” she broke off, raising her eyebrows, “they’re kind of stressed.”

One of the best things about the park is that residents in the area are proud of it:

Despite the complaints about noise, gentrification and tour buses spewing forth their cargo, many locals have fallen so hard and fast for the park that they are acting as impromptu tour guides, eager to show off their new love interest.

I also can’t help but love the High Line’s history, because it exemplifies the power of consequential stranger relationships–people from different worlds coming together on common ground.  Referred to in another New York Times article as “something of a New York fairy tale,” the once-upon-a-time began ten years ago.  Joshua David, a writer, and Robert Hammond, a painter met at a community board meeting and discovered that they both wanted to save the abandoned railroad trestle.  They then founded Friends of the High Line and recruited others to help make their dream a reality.  The High Line opened in June of 2009, and even in this economic downturn, it is revitalizing the neighborhood–not to mention putting smiles on people’s faces.  Jane Jacobs would be proud.

The P in Public is for People

A few months ago, when the New York transit authority announced plans to discontinue certain bus routes to cut down on costs, the bottom-liners who make such decisions probably didn’t think much about the social angle–the casual conversations and the lost connections that would result.  New urbanists frequently make this argument about architecture and city planning: Buildings and plazas are often erected without regard for the people who will inhabit the space.  Where do they hang out, schmooze, and get to know each other?  Such social engagement is, arguably, a key prerequisite for a civil society.

In the face of $1.2 billion debt, though, the transit authority had to do something.  Besides, most of us don’t usually think of buses and computer trains as social space.  They’re conveniences.  Indeed, most of the uproar about the reduced services brought cries of “how will we get to work?” rather than “what about the people I saw every day?”  Which is why I found “The Last Bus,” an “op-art” piece by Miranda Purves, so refreshing.  Purves admits that when she first began to take the B75 in Brooklyn with her three-year-old son,  the trip was little more than a painful necessity–a way to get from here to there:

Initially, I resented this routine: crabby bus drivers; occasionally menacing-seeming passengers; the excessive lurching. But slowly, I became familiar with the other regulars: the old woman with the bad knees en route to her quilting class, the drunk in a wheelchair who still maintains a cheerful independence.

Purves also describes the single mother and her son– “doughnut friends”–who, along with other regulars, became part of her daily routine.  She and her son depended on seeing them, and they made the B75, as her son put it, “our bus.”

Realizing that a hundred other bus route and five subway lines were doomed, Purves decided to spend some time traveling with Jason Logan, a graphic illustrator to sketch out the social scene on other routes throughout the city as well.

Both Jason and I have always been drawn to this phenomenon of people, behaving for the most part civilly, getting from here to there, side by side. And we wanted to find some way to convey the less tangible costs of service cuts and fare hikes.”

Her article and his illustration appeared in the New York Times this past March (2009)–a reminder that public arenas, stationary or on wheels, are “being spaces”–places where strangers become consequential strangers.  The piece bears looking at…again.  (And don’t forget to click on the PDF of Logan’s drawings–even if you have a slow computer, it’s worth the wait.)

Getting Stuck on the Word “Stranger”?

Consequential strangers. From the moment I saw the term Karen coined to describe people on the periphery of our close social circles, I loved it.  And so did most people.  They declared it “intriguing” or said “what a great oxymoron.”   But a few were confused.  After I’d described the kind of people we meant–coworkers, neighbors, a favorite waitress, their mailman, their mechanic–they’d inevitably come back with, “But they’re not strangers.” 

No, they’re consequential strangers, which is  a different word entirely.   Recently, I asked my Facebook friends (most are actually CS) for examples of similar phrases in which the meaning of the second word is completely changed by the presence of the first.  

They came up with many suggestions in which the first word modified the second, but does it completely change the meaning of the word?  A final curtain is still a curtain; a silent prayer still a prayer.  Others in that group included heavy duty, dual diagnosis, bind date, jump shot, bathing suit, and sponge bath.  (I came up with will power, which is still a power of sorts.)

They also offered other oxymorons, like jumbo shrimp (suggested by two people), along with civil war,  invisible ink, and amicable divorce.  But in each of those cases, the meaning of the second word is really just modified.  However ironcially, they’re still shrimp, ink, and divorce.  Granted, consequential strangers start out as strangers–all relationships do–but then they become something altogether different.   

The best suggestions, I think, were friendly fire, jazz fiend, smart cookie, trail blazer, military intelligence, and, when meant as an exclamation, good grief!   In each case, the second word takes on an entirely different meaning than if it stood alone.

Is there a name for such phrases? I’d really love William Safire to weigh in here.  Consequential stranger is an oxymoron, but these relationships–in scholarly circles, “weak ties” and in everyday parlance “acquaintances”–are people we know.  So if you’re listening, Mr. Safire or any other experts in our language, your input would be greatly appreciated. 

In the meantime, just remember:  Consequential strangers are not strangers! 

And if you’re wondering whether a particular person in your everyday comings and goings is a friend or consequential stranger, take this test.

How GM Lost Touch With Its CS…

…And How To Stop It From Happening in Your Company (Or Your Life)

General Motors went into bankruptcy because it had no respect for its consequential strangers–its employees, suppliers, customers, and colleagues in the same industry. In not so many words, that’s what the editors of The Week concluded in its Briefing, The Rise and Fall of General Motors.

“One division’s cars often cannibalized the sales of other divisions. Its in-house parts companies overcharged the various car divisions, which were barred from seeking lower prices from outsiders. And the various divisions resisted consolidating back-office operations such as purchasing and payroll.”

Acknowledging that high-cost labor contracts “crippled the company’s ability to cut costs,” the author also cites “management’s arrogance and complicity” as a factor in GM’s fall. Who could blame the average worker for feeling resentful?

Executives were literally walled off from the rest of the company behind the double electronic doors to the 14th floor of GM’s Detroit headquarters. They entered the building through a private basement garage and took their gourmet meals in private dining rooms. They rarely interacted with customers or even their own dealers, who knew firsthand their customers’ like and dislikes.

The story of GM mirrors how other ailing companies have lost touch with their consequential strangers: when employees and managers exist in two different, non fraternizing worlds, when one division doesn’t communicate with another, and when a company fails to look outside its own walls. They are insular; even consultants brought in act and think like the founders. Such companies are neither as profitable nor innovative as companies that collaborate across boundaries.

And it’s not just companies. Any group of people with a common goal–for example, a grass roots health organization or a spiritual center–can face a similar issue as it grows. It can happen to successful individuals, too. When a close-knit entourage, consisting of a few trusted friends, morphs into a branded enterprise with lawyers, handlers, trainers, accountants, and countless go-fers on the payroll, it makes it difficult for the person to connect. (See Was Michael Jackson Your Consequential Stranger?)

So what serves as preventive medicine?  How do then you stay in touch with the workers, the customers, the volunteers, the constituents, the fans who helped you grow or put you on top in the first place? Not surprisingly, the first step is to acknowledge that an assortment of consequential strangers is vital to the health of your undertaking. To stay connected, even as you grow, you have to innoculate your company against isolation:

Welcome diversity. Seek out coworkers and colleagues of a different class, race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation, and age. Even more important, look for people who have different ideas.  Connect with other companies.  Building such “bridges” brings in new resources and a fresh perspective. Otherwise, ideas get stale. And as the story of GM illustrates, people become unmotivated, even bitter, in an environment that squelches innovation and cooperation.

Create a climate of collaboration. The bigger an organization becomes, the greater the need for policies and procedures. But you can never lose sight of the fact that, first and foremost, you need people. And you need them–the high status and the low, the right-brained and the left-brained–to work together. One way to nurture such a climate is to think about your company as a “social convoy”– a constellation of individuals, in and outside the company, who travel with you toward a particular goal. Imagine yourself at the helm, riding in a hybrid minivan down the center of the road, flanked by a handful of your closest advisors. In the outside lanes are employees–perhaps members of the same divisions riding together–as well as suppliers, customers, and others in your industry. In a traditional corporate structure (like GM’s, which Alfred Sloan called “decentralized operations with coordinated control”), workers–if they are heard at all– have to go through appropriate channels to propose a new project or render an opinion of something already in the works. Conversely, in a social convoy cars can jockey positions. And thanks to the technology, it’s possible to communicate with all of them.

Be sincere.  Not that there’s anything wrong with profit and gain (as Seinfeld might have put it), but they can’t be your only motive. If you’re connecting with people only to better the bottom line, get more bodies into church, or convince people to buy your book, they’ll catch on. And they’ll probably desert you. As some might put it, “N.Y.P.A.”–we’re not your personal army.  So just be…yourself.  Do it over lunch, on a street corner or in a café, on the phone or over the Internet. If you’re uneasy about the new media, you might be tempted to consult with one of the so-called experts out there, whose blogs and twitters promise to teach you how. And perhaps they can help, but no one knows “the best way” (or even the five best ways) to reach out to your people.  Instead, why not spend social energy rather than money on expert advice? It might sound kind of old-school and not very flashy, but the best idea might be to just get out there, find a slice of common ground, and connect–one consequential stranger a time.

Do You Have Culture Smarts

Do you ever wonder why some people get all the breaks–and get ahead–with seeming ease? What’s their secret? It may be that they’re smart, or that they simply went to the “right” schools.  But research indicates that it’s not always privilege that opens doors. It’s also a matter of “culture smarts.”

People with culture smarts can have a lively conversation with anyone–about restaurants, pop music, art, fashion, business, tech trends, the news of the day. They’re lifelong learners who keep gathering a little information about a lot of things that you don’t necessarily learn from school. You learn it from people.

To find out if you have culture smarts, ask yourself, how varied is my social convoy?  Do you I know people up and down the  occupation ladder? To find out, take the Occupation Test.   You’ll see that in national samples, the highest scorers know people in 19 of the 22 occupations listed.  But knowing people in more than 19 occupations certainly isn’t out of the question. In fact, one of the women I interviewed, a New York City bus driver who has been at the wheel for nearly thirty years, know people in all 22!  Exceedingly culture smart, she managed to work her way up the ladder of success despite her humble beginnings, mostly because she can “mix it up” with her fellow drivers and a multi-hued array of passengers.)   Indeed, if having a diverse convoy is like getting a degree in “a little of almost everything,” as sociologist Bonnie Erickson puts it, then consequential strangers–people outside our intimate circles–are our best teachers.

Of Course Katherine Jackson Can Do It

So many of the talking heads question whether 79-year-old Katherine Jackson is “too old” to raise Michael Jackson’s children.   What they don’t take into account is that  (a) Katherine’s been co-parenting those kids since they were born;  (b) 79 isn’t what it used to be;  and perhaps most important, (c) she’s not going to do it alone.  

Grandma stepping in when parents are incapacitated or no longer in the picture isn’t exactly new–and it’s on the rise.  Between 1970 and 1997, grandparent-headed households increased from 2.2 million to 3.9 million; in the late 1990s these households included 5.5 percent of all U.S. children, typically aged five and under. Predictably, most of these are minority households, and the single greatest problem they face is poverty. Even so, as a  2006 study reported, evidence suggests that grandmas are able substitutes–indeed, a far better alternative than a household in which a single mother has a live-in boyfriend:

“…grandmother headed households may be promoting stability for children because they represent more long term arrangements: 56 percent last for at least three years, and nearly 20 percent last for ten years or longer. Moreover, evidence suggests that children who live in a grandparental home have better developmental outcomes (education, delinquency, and sexual behavior) that are on par with those observed in two parent married families.”

Katherine Jackson doesn’t have to worry about money, that’s for sure.  But she also seems to have the right stuff. Besides equal measures of love and limits, what makes a “good” parent or grandparent is knowing the child.  I don’t have first hand knowledge of this, but from listening to people in the inner circles of the Jackson family, it’s clear that Katherine has been there from the beginning. She knows the kids’ temperaments, their likes and dislikes, their strengths and vulnerabilities.    Is  another woman better equipped to raise Michael’s children simply because she’s younger

I once heard the late Tracy Hogg–aka “the Baby Whisperer”–tell a new mother to “use” her own mother–the baby’s grandma.  It didn’t matter if Mom did things differently in “her day.”  Tracy, who adored and often turned to her own “Nan” for advice, lamented the irony that in the face of so much expert advice, modern mothers often second-guess their own judgment and are unreceptive to the older generation. Certainly, there are inept and uneasy grandmothers, just as there are inept and uneasy mothers, but Katherine Jackson doesn’t seem to fall into that category–nor does she appear to be too “old” for the job.  She’s active, healthy, and stable.  And let’s not forget that she raised nine children of her own and understands all too well what it means for children to grow up in public.

And, to repeat: She won’t be doing it alone.  She is surrounded by a loving family–her children, their children, and her  close friends will be there with her.  She’ll have a cadre of consequential strangers to rely on, too: cooks and nannies and the kids’ friends’ parents. She’ll have teachers, coaches, lesson-givers, and teenagers who can climb the monkey bars and play video games with the kids. And if needed, she’ll have doctors and therapists to help the children and her deal with Michael’s death and whatever other challenges they face.

Katherine knows she can’t do it alone; every mother and grandmother does.

Mark Sanford: TMI (Too Much Information)

Once again we’re slowing down and craning our heads to stare at a roadside collision: Mark Sanford. We’re not riveted because we wonder whether Sanford should continue to serve as Governor. Face it, our most popular male leaders have been philanderers and not necessarily unseated as a result. (A woman would never get away with it, but that’s another story. Sara Palin’s behavior is blamed on postpartum depression, Nancy Pelosi is frequently referred to as “a grandmother.” If Hillary had a dalliance with one of her young staffers–”slut” would be the word of the day.)

What’s giving us pause about Sanford is the endless and intimate confession itself. Everyone’s asking, is he doing more harm to himself by continuing to apologize? It’s not the apology per se; it’s his delivery. He’s talking to us as if he were at his kitchen table not on national television. It’s too intimate, and it makes us uncomfortable–but we can’t turn away. Whether Sanford is just slick or truly remorseful, the point is, he’s not talking the way people–especially men–are supposed to talk in public. You could say he’s using his inside voice, pouring his heart out to a lover or close friend. If this saga was unfolding in France, he’d be using “tu”–the intimate pronoun–to address reporters. Even videos of him seem intimate. He leans in and huddles up to the microphone, bows his head, lowers his eye lids, and shrugs ever so slightly. His voice is low, hoarse, and–dare I say–sultry.

The private him makes us uncomfortable because we’re not imembers of his inner circle and we know we shouldn’t be listening.  We don’t talk that way to strangers (or consequential strangers, for that matter) and he shouldn’t either. TMI, even in the digital age.