Even Strangers Matter

Karen L. Fingerman, my academic collaborator, and Calvin Morrill, one of the scholars whose work also contributed greatly to the foundation of Consequential Strangers, are quoted today in a New York Times article, Window Watchers in a City of Strangers.  The article makes the point that we have always been fascinated by other people’s life–a preoccupation captured in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and more recently in project by Gail Albert Halaban, a fine art photographer who created Out My Window NYC.  As Ms. Halaban put it:

“In a large city where there’s a lot going on around you, it can feel very isolating and lonely. By having contact with these total strangers through the window, it’s a safe way of having a relationship without the hard part of a relationship.” Continue Reading »

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.

Test: Friend or Consequential Stranger?

Our vocabulary of relationships is limited. We tend to use the word “friend” for most of our connections, but many of our everyday contacts are actually consequential strangers (acquaintances). Think of someone you know but aren’t sure how to accurately describe the relationship. Then take this Friend or Consequential Stranger? test to look at the differences.  The test is most interesting when you apply it to several people–or fifty.  It will make you think about the complexity of social ties–and the different elements that make each relationship unique.  Then look at the (unscientific but probably accurate) scoring below.

As you probably guessed, the A statements are more likely to relate to consequential strangers, the B statements to your intimates.  However, all relationships span a continuum from complete stranger to soul mate. Although one “territory” blends into the next, and relationships can change over time, these statements can help you approximate where each person might fall on your own continuum.

More than 17 B’s: The person is somewhere near the soul mate side of your continuum–-a partner, parent, child, or close friend who is part of your inner circles.

5-7 A’s and 13-15 B’s: The person is in friend territory but not necessarily part of your inner circle.

10 A’s and 10 B’s:   The person is in the grey zone between consequential stranger and friend, perhaps someone who started out as an acquaintance and is now moving along the continuum toward the friend end, or an acquaintance who was once important and is now less so. It also might be someone you’ve known for a long time or see fairly often but who doesn’t qualify as a close friend.

13-15 A’s and 5-7 B’s: The person is a close consequential stranger, an acquaintance you associate with a particular place or activity.  You might use the label a “friend,”  but the relationship is probably based on a particular aspect of your life–your work, leisure pursuits, volunteer work.   You might even spend a considerable amount of time together, but the person is on the periphery of your social life not at its center.

17 or more A’s: The person is probably in solid consequential stranger territory–one of those wash-and-wear relationships that requires very little maintenance.