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.

Can An Intimate Become a Consequential Stranger?

Relationships are dynamic, living entities; like people, they change over time. A consequential stranger can morph into a good friend or even a lover. But what about sliding in the other direction along the relationship continuum–away from soul mate and closer to stranger? Does your dear college friend move into CS territory when your lives no longer intersect? Can someone you once loved and had sex with become a consequential stranger?

Several years ago, when I was first contemplating a book about casual relationships, I found out an answer to the first question.  (It may not be the answer.) After not seeing my college roommates, Gail and Tina, for several years, we made a lunch date.  En route in the car, they asked what I was writing, and I launched into a long-winded explanation of the project, ending with, “So you see, you’re my consequential strangers.”

The next day, Gail was indignant on the phone:  “Tina and I can’t be your consequential strangers. We knew your mother and father. We spent time in Deal [where my family had a summer home]. We know everything about you, including all your old boyfriends.”  They had a point. Some of my college friends were, in fact, consequential strangers–people I’d never have thought to invite home for the weekend. I didn’t stay in touch with them over the summers nor had I in the intervening years since we graduated. They were of college.  But Gail and Tina were not consequential strangers and never could be. Despite the distance, the gaps between visits, and the different paths we took, they were still my friends.

Friendship is one thing; it’s a little dicier when you add sex to the mix.  One of Karen’s studies, “The Best of Ties, The Worst of Ties,” suggests that we experience more ambivalence toward mates, whereas we tend to see our consequential strangers in a negative or positive light. Although her study didn’t look at what happens after relationships end, my research on divorce (and personal experience) tells me that ambivalence lingers long after the love drains out of a partnership.

Just how far away from the soul mate end of the continuum a breakup takes you depends on many factors, but one thing is sure: The two of you will morph into something different.  There are three possibilities as I see them, based on years of interviewing people about their relationships:

Option 1. It’s impossible to pick up the pieces, so you try to put as much distance as possible between you. You will want to think of the other person as a stranger but even if you never see him again, you’ll still be connected by anger.

Option 2. You continue to be in each other lives and–in time–become not only “just friends” but good friends. You may not see each other regularly, but in a lesser way, you’re still there for one another. This is most likely to happen in couples without children, where the parties mutually wanted the split, and with female couples. (For those of you who watched The L Word, I don’t just mean lesbians: Many a married woman has had a same-sex affair earlier in her life–out of curiosity, bisexuality, drunkenness, or all three. Once it’s over, she doesn’t want to lose the close friendship, which was what attracted her in the first place.)

Option 3. You become consequential strangers. Even when couples have bad breakups, this can happen, especially if you have to be in each other’s lives– let’s say you share children or grandchildren, or belong to the same church. It’s better to act like consequential strangers than to go on hating her guts. You no longer kiss hello. You make small talk. You ask about work and leisure time, not personal matters. How’s the real estate market? Seen any good films? You still play tennis with Gary?  Granted, in a quiet moment when you’re staring at her from across the room, you remember the crazy things you did in bed together–but you can’t imagine going there again. You don’t have to; she’s just a consequential stranger.