The Birth of a Notion (excerpt)

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “universe,” a part
limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts
and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical
delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for
us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few
persons nearest us. . . . We shall require a substantially new manner
of thinking if humanity is to survive.                 —Albert Einstein

Every day we interact with people who influence our lives in small
and great ways but who are not part of our inner circle: a yoga
teacher, a waitress, a gym buddy, a pet sitter, a former coworker,
a “friend” on Facebook, dad’s army chum, the proprietor of a
favorite clothing store, a professional contact known mostly by
phone. Each of these relations is different from the other, but they
all are consequential strangers—people who are so much a part of
our everyday life that we often take them for granted.

This book is the result of a collaboration between two consequential
strangers—Melinda Blau, a journalist, and Karen Fingerman,
a social scientist and professor at Purdue University. If writers
tend to write what they know, creative scholars also study and
develop theories based on their personal experiences. We can read
about other people and see how various ideas and research findings
play out in their stories, but most of us “get” the importance of
consequential strangers by examining our own lives. So it was for
Blau and Fingerman.

The Journalist
For Blau, it was her move from Manhattan in 1990—years before
she and Fingerman would cross paths. When people in her new
locale—Northampton, Massachusetts—asked if she missed New
York, she replied, “No, I miss New Yorkers.” She had in mind
Kathy, a fellow tenant she often chatted with in the lobby of their
building, and Henrietta, the septuagenarian writer whom she
respected and learned from but saw only for coffee after their class
at the New School. She missed popping in on Stanley and Leon,
the celebrated butchers on Madison Avenue who had given her
children slices of bologna and watched the two of them grow up.
She remembered how Helen, the Korean greengrocer, would set
aside a box of Concord grapes for her every autumn. The collective
presence of this wide-ranging array of people punctuated her daily
comings and goings in Manhattan. Eventually she realized that
“New Yorker” was code for an entire category of casual relationships
that had virtually disappeared from her life.

To remedy her sense of isolation, Blau launched what she, for
lack of a better term, called her “acquaintanceship campaign.” She
wasn’t in the market for friends. She needed informal relations.
So whenever she interviewed someone in the area who sounded
interesting and open, she’d invite the person to coffee. She felt
vulnerable putting herself out there, but at least had the cover of
her profession. In this way, she met a handful of new people—
among them, a psychology professor, the editor of a local paper,
and a woman she interviewed for an article about divorce. She
also accepted her landlord’s invitation to have lunch with “some
people you might like.”

Some of those tentative connections went no further than a first
“date.” Some led to other new acquaintances. A few became good
friends. Most, happily and appropriately, stayed on the periphery
of her social circle and yet contributed to her sense of belonging in
Northampton. They made Blau’s life richer and more interesting,
often giving her opportunities and connections she’d never have
imagined. She finally had people she could ask whether a particular
restaurant was good or which doctor had the best reputation.
And when the city dug up her front lawn to repair a burst water
main and she was out of town, there were people she could call
for help.

The Scholar
In the mid-nineties, Fingerman, who had spent much of her career
studying adult relationships, was beginning to pay attention to
nonintimate social ties in her academic work. What do these outsiders
do for our sense of self? How do they satisfy our competing
needs for individuality and connection? Why do we need to notice
these important yet overlooked relations? But it was soon after
the birth of her first child that she truly came to terms with their
significance—mostly by accident.

In 2000, Fingerman experienced every cliché of new motherhood—
a deep and abiding love for her baby, the stress of figuring
out how she would combine work and family, and the realization
that she might never wear a bikini again. But she also had feelings
no one had forewarned her about. Her world had narrowed.
In this new universe, only three people existed: Fingerman, her
husband, and her baby. Initially their time was intense and joyfully
focused within the confines of their tiny family. Fingerman loved
the cocoon they’d built around themselves. But she also missed
aspects of her former life, which included volunteer work at the
local soup kitchen, travel to academic conferences in Europe, and
brown-bag lunches during which she and her graduate students
discussed new ideas in the field.

When Fingerman returned to teaching, she settled happily into
a new routine. But one afternoon, as she drove into the entrance
of the day care center parking lot to retrieve her son, she had
an epiphany. The scene was familiar enough by then. Every day
between 5:00 and 5:30 p.m., fifty or so vehicles drove in and out
of the small lot behind the center, which normally held no more
than fifteen cars. The overflow forced some parents to park on
the sidewalk. Yet no one stole a space. No one honked. Tempers
remained in check. As each parent began to exit the lot, he or she
waited patiently for drivers in the lead to inch their way out of the
narrow entrance. Marveling at their civility, Fingerman understood
the reason for their restraint: their connections. They were
neighbors, colleagues, care providers, the university librarian, and
each knew the other at least tangentially. She began to think of
them as “consequential strangers.”

Fingerman then started to notice the myriad ways in which
people on the periphery sustained her sheltered family. Metaphorically,
her husband and baby were always at the center of her vision,
but other, less intimate relationships were on the blurred edges.
As her child grew, she met other parents at the playground who
knew about gymnastics and music classes for toddlers. There were
people whose services she used, people on whom she depended for
haircuts and legal advice, and the woman who rang up her iced tea
each afternoon at the cafeteria. The story her research was beginning
to suggest certainly seemed true in her own life: People outside
one’s circle of family and close friends mattered as well.

This Book
The collaborators first met by phone in 2003 when Blau called
to interview Fingerman about a mother-daughter study she had
published. Over the next few years, the two exchanged emails
and phone numbers and kept in touch electronically, opening
windows for one another into their respective worlds of journalism
and research. In 2005, Fingerman emailed Blau a chapter she
had recently published about peripheral relationships. As the first
sheet of paper spit out of her printer, Blau’s eyes lit on a phrase in
the title that seemed to leap off the page.

This book is an exploration of that phrase—“consequential
strangers”—people who don’t seem to matter, but really do. In
Chapter 1, we talk about the ascendance of peripheral social ties—
why most of us haven’t thought much about their importance until
now and why we need a “new vocabulary” to describe the people
in our lives, language that enables us to acknowledge and celebrate
more subtle levels of intimacy.

We then pull back the camera in Chapter 2, to look at an aerial
view of the social landscape so that we can see how each of us—in
our everyday comings and goings, in business, in our communities,
and in cyberspace—travel in our own social “convoy.” Understanding
these connections enables us to harness the power of
consequential strangers—a power that is now essential to personal
and organizational success.

Chapter 3 looks at how these bit players broaden our sense of self
and link us to information and other resources we can’t get from
our intimates. They are more likely to challenge our worldview
and to add novelty, dimension, and color to our lives, and to take
us “beyond the familiar.” Likewise, when it comes to well-being,
the subject of Chapter 4, we need to marshal all of our social ties
in order to stay healthy or cope with an illness—our own or a
loved one’s.

Chapter 5 looks at “being spaces”—places where relationships
first unfold, such as the gym, the beauty salon, a favorite coffee
shop or tavern, a playing field, and other environments that are
conducive to letting outsiders in. And lest we appear to sound like
Pollyanna, Chapter 6 makes the point that although most consequential
strangers serve a positive function in our lives, they are
not always good to us or for us.

Finally, in Chapter 7, we look toward the future. If the Millennial
generation, now rising into adulthood on the heels of Gen X,
is any indication, consequential strangers will only become more
important. Our lives and our locales have become increasingly
diverse. Recognizing the importance of these easy-care relationships,
understanding what they do for us, and finding the “hidden
solidarities” in our everyday social ties is key to survival in a
complex society.

The research in this book, drawn from a variety of sciences,
affirms the importance of everyday connections—and not just with
our intimates. Therefore, this is a different kind of “relationship
book.” It won’t teach you the rules or give you ten keys that will
make you more attractive, loved, or successful, but it will make
you think. It will change your definition of what an “important”
relationship is. And it will make you more aware of the people you
encounter on the job, in your neighborhood, wherever you play
and pray, in public arenas, and in cyberspace. You may be skeptical:
How could these casual relationships have such an impact, for
better or for worse? Read on.

You will see how having a diverse collection of consequential
strangers helps you develop a more flexible self, one that is better
positioned to take action in your life, even in the face of adversity.
You will come to understand the paradox of the periphery: Those
we know less well are more likely to keep us informed and excited
about life. And by the time you get to the last page of this book,
you will look at these seemingly unimportant people in your life
with new eyes. They might be slightly or very different from those
in your inner social circle, but each gives you something unique—
a new opportunity, a different way of looking at a problem, an
unexpected kindness, an experience you might otherwise never
have had.

Perhaps this is what J. K. Rowling had in mind when she delivered
the commencement address at Harvard University in 2008
and suggested that the graduates consider an alternative definition
of “imagination.” In addition to being “the uniquely human
capacity to envision that which is not,” said the woman who gave
us the indomitable and yet humble young wizard Harry Potter,
imagination also is “the power that enables us to empathize with
humans whose experiences we have never shared.” At the end of
her speech, Rowling added, “We do not need magic to change the
world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already:
we have the power to imagine.”

It is our hope that this book will inspire your social imagination.

Consequential Strangers is now in bookstores and available online:

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