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.

3 Responses to “Can Your Colleague’s Husband’s Sister Make You Fat? (How Our Social Convoys Protect Us)”

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  2. Let's Hear It For "Soft Skills": Communication & Collaboration | Consequential Strangers Says:

    […] of jobs, up and down the socio-economic ladder.  As sociologist Bonnie Erickson, having a diverse social convoy is “like enrolling in a liberal arts college and getting a degree in a little of almost […]

  3. Chronic Sufferers Share Online, but Are They Getting Help? | Consequential Strangers Says:

    […] other medical personnel, patients, and caregivers who are enlisted as part of the sufferer’s social convoy–the entourage of people who travel through the experience with him or her.    Although our […]

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