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.