Do You Have Culture Smarts

Do you ever wonder why some people get all the breaks–and get ahead–with seeming ease? What’s their secret? It may be that they’re smart, or that they simply went to the “right” schools.  But research indicates that it’s not always privilege that opens doors. It’s also a matter of “culture smarts.”

People with culture smarts can have a lively conversation with anyone–about restaurants, pop music, art, fashion, business, tech trends, the news of the day. They’re lifelong learners who keep gathering a little information about a lot of things that you don’t necessarily learn from school. You learn it from people.

To find out if you have culture smarts, ask yourself, how varied is my social convoy?  Do you I know people up and down the  occupation ladder? To find out, take the Occupation Test.   You’ll see that in national samples, the highest scorers know people in 19 of the 22 occupations listed.  But knowing people in more than 19 occupations certainly isn’t out of the question. In fact, one of the women I interviewed, a New York City bus driver who has been at the wheel for nearly thirty years, know people in all 22!  Exceedingly culture smart, she managed to work her way up the ladder of success despite her humble beginnings, mostly because she can “mix it up” with her fellow drivers and a multi-hued array of passengers.)   Indeed, if having a diverse convoy is like getting a degree in “a little of almost everything,” as sociologist Bonnie Erickson puts it, then consequential strangers–people outside our intimate circles–are our best teachers.

Starting Over: Casual Acquaintances Are More Important Than You Think

[This offering appeared earlier today on 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.

5 Steps Anyone Can Take to Raise Their Social IQ

Someone at a speaker’s bureau recently asked, “What about people who aren’t natural connectors? What do they do?” Her question implied that Consequential Strangers is about the need to “network,” but she missed the point: The message of the book is to broaden your social awareness–which anyone can do, regardless of his or her personality.

Granted, certain kinds of folks–extroverts, city dwellers, salespeople, media types, and women–find it relatively easy to meet people and make small talk. As a result, they probably accumulate more consequential strangers than people who are on the shy side or in an isolated setting. But almost everyone–even someone in tiny Medaryville, Indiana, population 549 at last count–has some consequential strangers. My point is that no matter who you are, you can make the most of them.

1. Become aware of the consequential strangers in your life.  Of anyone who is not part of your inner cirle, ask yourself, “Where do I see and spend time with this person?” Chances are, it’s a place or activity–work, the gym, a school, church, your commute, your neighborhood, the ball field.  The goal is to see your life through a social lens: as a cavalcade of relationships, not just a series of events.

2. Look at the resources you already have. Revisit your history through this perspective. What has each the person given you? And what can you count on in the future? Advice? A laugh? Gossip? Job leads? Agita ? The greater the variety of people in your life, the more resources you have. (Take the Occupation Test –posted on May 31–to see whether your convoy is diverse.)

3. Scout out new possibilities. Give a stranger a moment’s thought. You can choose not to engage, but you could also take one little step. Smile, nod, say hello. Use the person’s name; ask something about him; find a small patch of common ground. Offer a tidbit about yourself but be appropriate. (Don’t open the conversation with a true confession.) The exchange will be pleasant (because you are). You might never see that person again, but if you do, you can pick up where you left off.

4. Add to your convoy as needed. On a good day, most of us are flooded in information and have to make complex decisions–what car to buy, where to send the kids to school, what to do with the 401K, how to build a website, whether or not to Twitter. And in crisis–illness, accident, divorce, depression (our own or the economy’s), it’s even harder. We simply can’t do it alone–or just with loved ones.

5. Recruit new people into your convoy who have the expertise, information, or empathy you need.Seek out professional help if you can afford it or ask people you know to recommend people they know. Also, go to places (a support group, a convention, an association, a cyber café, a web community) where you’re likely to meet a stranger who fits the bill. And then go back to #3 and turn that stranger into a consequential stranger!

A word to the shy: Start small, build social muscle slowly, and watch the results.

The Occupation Test

Print this list of occupations or copy them onto a sheet of paper.  Put a check mark next to each profession in which you know someone well enough to talk to, even if you are not close to him or her. Indicate whether that person is a relative (R), friend (F), or consequential stranger (CS). Then scroll down to see what it all means and how your answers compare to national samples.
administrative assistant 
baby sitter
computer programmer
factory operator
middle school teacher 
personnel manager 
police officer 
production manager 
security guard 
taxi driver


What It All Means

The above list was used in a survey of 3,000 employed or previously employed adults, aged 21 to 64, conducted by sociologist Nan Lin who devised the method (and graciously allowed it to be reprinted in the book). Theoretically, the more people you know up and down the occupational ladder, the greater your ability to access information and resources.

Best-known: Nurse–nearly 70% of the respondents knew at least one.

Somewhat well-known: 45% or more respondents listed a hairdresser, lawyer, police officer, computer programmer, or middle school teacher.

Not very well-known: Fewer than 20% knew a taxi driver, CEO, production manager, or a congressperson.

Least known: Hotel bell boy (2.7%)

How diverse is your social convoy?

On the low side (meaning you probably don’t have a very diverse social convoy): Knowing people in five or fewer occupations. Slightly more than 2% of those surveyed didn’t know people in any of the occupations.

Average: Knowing people in six or seven occupations.

Above average:  Around a third knew people in eight or more occupations. No one knew people in all 22 jobs–19 was the upper limit.

What About Your Consequential Strangers?

Sorting your contacts into columns shows how you know those people. Adapting Lin’s method in this way, sociologist Bonnie Erickson found that weaker ties–consequential strangers–”give substantially greater access” to a variety of occupations and therefore to people in different economic classes. In a study of the security industry (using a different and slightly short list), people had relatives in “only about two” occupations, friends in twice to three times as many job categories as relatives, and weak ties in twice as many classes as friends. You’ll probably find that your list is heavy on consequential strangers, too.