What CS Taught Me

I’m no early adapter, but gradually I’m learning my way around the social web. Thanks to Google Alerts, I’ve made a lot of new connections–people far and wide whom I see as my teachers. They live in other places, deal with different challenges and have their own unique way of facing them, and each one broadened my own perspective. Here are a few that come to mind. I’ll keep featuring these connections here as I continue to meet and make new CS. Continue Reading »

New Book on Consequential Strangers

The importance of everyday encounters and experiences started with sociologist and psychologist in academia with a handful of forward-thinking reserachers, like my collaborator.  And now, David Morgan, a British sociologist,  brings us “Acquaintances: The Space Between Strangers and Intimates.”   I haven’t read the book yet, but from this review by community development consultant Kevin Harris, I can see that we cover a lot of similar ground.  Continue Reading »

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.

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.