Social Isolation “Worsens Cancer”

Yesterday, that headline was picked up by the BBC News, Wall Street Journal, and Science Daily, and will undoubtedly continue travel through the blogosphere for weeks to come.  A study  conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and reported in the journal Cancer Prevention Research (click here for the abstract) began six years ago when a team, led by a cancer specialist and a biobehavioral psychologist,  raised two groups of mice that were genetically predisposed to develop breast cancer.   Some lived with other mice and some lived alone.  After the same amount of time, the isolated mice grew larger breast cancer tumors.  Mice in the “stressful environment”–isolation–also behaved differently and had higher stress hormone levels.

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Help Us Pick a New Subtitle

In the spirit of collaborative marketing, I am posing a question to my readers and potential readers:  The paperback–will be out next July or August. And while I loved the initial subtitle, “The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter…But Really Do,” it describes the term consequential strangers, not what’s in the book itself, which goes waaaaaaay beyond mere definition.   Also, from some of the messages I’ve gotten, I know that the term immediately resonates with people.  No need to define it–everyone has a consequential stranger story at the ready.  So here are the three front runners.  Answer quickly (I’m twittering this, too), or you won’t have any input.  I’m especially interested in hearing from those of you who have already read, or at least started, the book.  Thanks.

  • Turning Everyday Encounters Into Life-Changing Moments
  • A New Way to Look at Your Life and Your Relationships
  • How Everyday Connections Change Your Life


Creativity and Consequential Strangers

In the “old days,” before search engines, when you couldn’t remember the date of the first moon launch or why “the Bay of Pigs” was important (you must have been doodling instead of listening in class that day), you had to trudge off to the library.   Now, answers to just about anything are at our fingertips.  Recently, for example, my son-in-law wondered about the origins of the song “Mr. Bojangles,” and with a few clicks of his mouse came up with this information, which he promptly forwarded to me:

“Mr. Bojangles” was the nickname used by Bill Robinson, a black tap dancer who appeared in many movies in the 1930s, including with Shirley Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  After Robinson’s success, many black street dancers became known as “Bojangles.”

[The song] was written and originally released by the singer/songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker, who wrote [it] in the mid-’60s and recorded it in 1968. Walker left his home in upstate New York and traveled the country playing music. He spent some time in New Orleans, where one day he was a bit tipsy and made a public display trying to convince a young lady that love at first sight was real. This landed him in jail, where his cell mate was an older black man who made a living as a street dancer and told Walker all about his life. In his book Gypsy Songman, Walker tells the story: “One of the guys in the cell jumped up and said, ‘Come on, Bojangles. Give us a little dance.’ ‘Bojangles’ wasn’t so much a name as a category of itinerant street entertainer known back as far as the previous century. The old man said, ‘Yes, Hell yes.’ He jumped up, and started clapping a rhythm, and he began to dance. I spent much of that long holiday weekend talking to the old man, hearing about the tough blows life had dealt him, telling him my own dreams.” Walker moved on to Texas, where he sat down to write: “And here it came, just sort of tumbling out, one straight shot down the length of that yellow pad. On a night when the rest of the country was listening to The Beatles, I was writing a 6/8 waltz about an old man and hope. It was a love song. In a lot of ways, Mr. Bojangles is a composite. He’s a little bit of several people I met for only moments of a passing life. He’s all those I met once and will never see again and will never forget.”

I did a little Googling of my own and apparently Walker’s cell mate was white; in those days, jail cells were segregated.  So, you can’t necessarily trust everything you find on the net.  But of course, the reason my son-in-law passed the story on to me was that the Mr. Bojangles “composite” was a conglomeration of all the consequential strangers Walker had met on the road of life.  The same was true for writer Studs Turkel who drew inspiration from casual, and sometimes fleeting, acquaintances.  (Read an excerpt about Turkel here.)

What’s going on?  How do people inspire us? Psychologist Kenneth Gergen, author of The Saturated Self and, more recently, Relational Being, explains that our minds are “populated” by everyone we encounter in life, including characters in books and people we “meet” through various media.  As any writer, artist, musician, or successful entrepreneur knows, some ideas seem to “come out of nowhere” or feel like “divine inspiration.”   Now that I’m paying attention to all the members of my social convoy, or personal entourage of connections, I’m aware of how much my own thinking is shaped every day by the relationships in my life.  In a sense, I’m practicing–and suggesting to readers–what psychologist/artist/writer Ellen Langer might call “social mindfulness.”  A description of her classic book, Mindfulness explains: “To be mindful, she notes, stressing process over outcome, allows free rein to intuition and creativity, and opening us to new information and perspectives.”

I’m hoping that social mindfulness is infectious–and it looks like it just might be:    I get emails every day from people telling me how their newfound awareness of consequential strangers is opening their hearts and minds to ideas, images, experiences, and perspectives–the very stuff of creativity.

Variety Counts, Not Numbers

Recently,  psychologist and author Bella de Paulo, posted an interesting question about consequential strangers in an article for psychologytoday.com, “Do You Want the People on the Periphery of Your Life to Become More Consequential.”  (Disclosure:  She didn’t just happen on the book.  I interviewed her about her groundbreaking research on lying for the “Downside” chapter!)

The piece is worth reading.  Professor de Paulo makes some fascinating points about what she calls “intensive coupling”–the traditional view that those in a committed relationship must “be all” to one another, rather than relying on friends and acquaintances to meet some of their needs.   Having written about the alternatives in her own book, Singled Out,  she embraces the central message of Consequential Strangers: to value the connections beyond family and close friends.

I was taken by the authors’ arguments for many reasons, but most of all, because these are the very points my colleagues and I have been developing–only with regard to friends rather than acquaintances.  So now I like Consequential Strangers for another reason. I think that in a big, broad sense, it is a sign of our times.

But later in the piece, de Paulo also expresses personal reservations against having too many consequential strangers:

Personally, I do not want so many of the people on the periphery of my life acting as if they are not actually strangers. Blau and Fingerman described approvingly the “5-10 rule” of check-ins at Westin hotels: “Spend at least five minutes and walk ten steps with each guest.” I read that and made a mental note to avoid Westin hotels. When I’ve finally arrived at a hotel, weary and hungry, after a cross-country flight, a delay at the baggage claim, and a van to the hotel, I really do not want my check-in extended to five minutes. (Now if you want to offer me a cookie, as some hotels now do, that’s a different story.)

Fair enough, I say.  I appreciate Professor de Paulo’s honesty.  In fact, I’ve heard it before.  Statements like,  “I don’t need any more people in my life” and “Who has the time?” often crop up in discussions about consequential strangers.  And my personal favorite:  “I don’t want to have conversations with strangers.”

My response is two-fold:  First, of all, no one says you have to have conversations with strangers–and it’s not “strangers” we’re talking about.  (See Getting Stuck on the Word Stranger? for more on this.) The idea is to become aware of the people who are already on the periphery of your social life.  If you’re like most Americans, they far outnumber your intimates.  We spend the bulk of our time with them, and so it makes sense to value them.

Second, and most important, we don’t need a lot of consequential strangers, just variety.   All you need is a sampling of the diverse types of people you naturally encounter as you make your way through the day–during your commute, when you are at school or work, wherever you pray or play, and when you need a repair or any kind of assistance.   Each of your connections is different from you and probably different from one another.  Their backgrounds, experiences, and personal qualities broaden your own repertoire and make you realize that there are other perspectives.  They’re likely to show you ways to think and approaches to problems that you might never have considered.

So don’t stay at the Westin if you don’t want.  And don’t worry about racking up huge numbers of consequential strangers.  Just make the best of the ones you already have.  You’ll be surprised at all the cookies you’ll collect.

Can Your Colleague’s Husband’s Sister Make You Fat? (How Our Social Convoys Protect Us)

We may not be judged by the company we keep, but we’re certainly influenced by it.  That theme also runs through Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter.   My collaborator, Karen Fingerman, who coined the term consequential strangers, makes the point that these people on the periphery influence our behavior as much as intimates do–and we draw from many different strands of research to explain why this is the case.  But according to the advance promotion for an upcoming book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives–we are also influenced by people we don’t know:

“Your colleague’s husband’s sister can make you fat, even if you don’t know her. A happy neighbor has more impact on your happiness than a happy spouse. These startling revelations of how much we truly influence one another are revealed in the studies of Drs. Christakis and Fowler, which have repeatedly made front-page news nationwide.” [Excerpt of the press release for the book]

Over the last several years, the Harvard researchers have received widespread attention for their contention that health issues “run” in social networks.  But could someone you don’t know “make” you fat?  It certainly gets our attention.  At least two researchers (“Study Contradicts Earlier Reports That Some Health Issues Are ‘Contagious’ Among Friends”) have questioned whether social networks actually cause a particular health outcome.  I’m a journalist, not a scientist, and therefore not in a position to refute Christakis’ and Fowler’s work-it is well researched and respected.  But I suspect that our two books will probably be spoken of in the same breath because we cover similar territory–the broader social landscape beyond our circles of family and close friends–albeit through a different lens.  While Consequential Strangers acknowledges that we’re all embedded in larger social systems and that those systems affect our attitudes and behavior, ours is a book about relationships, not networks.

To avoid confusion, in fact, instead of referring to a “personal network,” (which researchers define in different ways), we use the term social convoy, coined by psychologist Toni Antonucci in the early eighties to describe the caravan of the connections you forge as you move through life.  Antonucci based her work on attachment theory–the notion that babies who have protective caregivers feel secure enough to check out that shiny object across the room.  Looking at adults’ social circles, she reasoned that close ties provide similar support in adulthood, allowing us to explore and take risks.  Decades later, hers and other studies suggest that she was correct. Today, she acknowledges that all our relationships, including the people who play minor roles in our lives, help us face whatever challenges come our way.

Analyzing your social convoy helps you review your life not merely as a series of events but as a cavalcade of people.  You get to see who helped make your journey more pleasurable–and who led you towards the seedy part of town.  You can see that all the people in your entourage matter–intimates and consequential strangers.  Each one is a potential resource, even those you can barely spot in the rear view mirror.  The convoy image also captures movement and the fact that relationships are fluid.  As you change, your relationships change.  Some people in your convoy make the entire journey with you, but others–typically, your consequential strangers–are there for specific segments of the trip.

It’s important to remember, as both books point out, that larger social forces affect you–with or without your consent.  But the convoy image offers a slightly different, and more personal, perspective that enables gives you a sense of control.  Whether or not you can actually “get fat” because you are part of the same network as your colleague’s husband’s sister whom you don’t know is far less important than what you do if you feel that you’re overweight.  If you decide to go on a diet, advice and support will come from people you do know.  They’re already in your convoy.  If not, you can recruit new members into your convoy who have the information, expertise, or empathy that you need.

Sure, we are all embedded in social systems that are beyond our own convoys.  Often, we’re in more than one, simply because we happen to be part of a neighborhod, a company, an ethnic group, a generation, or some other collective identity that affects our individual journeys.  But in order to take action, to get information, to gain a new perspective, we need to look at our relationships.  In the end, it’s the people in our social convoy who help us get where we want to go.