The Paradox of Fleeting Relationships in Small Spaces

New York Times reporter Ariel Kaminer is surprised that four minutes into a shared cab ride, she and her co-rider, a recent college graduate, “had already done money and politics, things people supposedly don’t discuss with strangers.  So I asked if she was a person of faith, and bingo, we hit the trifecta, all before the meter even registered $5.”

Kaminer’s piece, Taxicab Confessions, written after the second day of a new cab-sharing program in Manhattan brought to mind some fascinating research I uncovered when working on a chapter about how relationships unfold.  It helps explain what makes sharing a small space with a stranger so intimidating and, at the same time, why we sometimes break all the rules and let it rip with someone we just met, even in a very short period of time.  Continue Reading »

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 »

An American in Paris: 5 Tips for Courting French CS

In ancient cultures, according to sociologist Lyn H. Lofland, strangers were routinely viewed with suspicion–in the extreme executed for the “crime” of being unknown. Parisians, it seems, haven’t come far since then.  They are excessively polite, but they aren’t interesimg_0865ted in outsiders.  I didn’t want to believe that–but my stay last Christmas certainly reinforced the stereotype. I couldn’t wait to leave and did so after sixteen days, muttering under my breath, They’re right about the French.

I was determined that this trip would be different.  Haven’t I written advice about raising your social IQ? I can’t say I’ve been totally successful in breaking through the French resolve, but people do seem “nicer” now  And since they probably haven’t changed, I must be doing something different.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

Bring a dog with you. This is the only guarantee of starting a conversation with a stranger. In fact, I’ve learned to let my six-pound poodle walk in first.  If all of Paris is Studio 54, Bogey is on “the list,” not me. Seeing him, every waiter, every shopkeeper brightens and coos, “Ooooh. Qu’est-ce qu’il est mignon! [Isn’t he sweet?] Entrez! Entrez!” and then finally looks in my direction, tolerating the human. In Paris, dogs rule–even visiting dogs sense it. Bogey trots down the street here as if he’s returned to his homeland.

Speak their language. I’m relying on my meager and long forgotten high school French, but it helps to at least try. Then again, my word retrieval is poor, my grammar poorer. I know how David Sedaris felt when he wrote about his struggle to master even rudimentary French in Me Talk Pretty One Day.  Case in point, yesterday when I accidentally bumped into someone on the street–“bumped into” as in “collided with,” not “ran into an old acquaintance”–I put on my most contrite face and blurted out, “I’m sorry to me.” Or at least I think that’s what “Je me desoler” means! Continue Reading »

Variety Counts, Not Numbers

Recently,  psychologist and author Bella de Paulo, posted an interesting question about consequential strangers in an article for, “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.

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.

Mark Sanford: TMI (Too Much Information)

Once again we’re slowing down and craning our heads to stare at a roadside collision: Mark Sanford. We’re not riveted because we wonder whether Sanford should continue to serve as Governor. Face it, our most popular male leaders have been philanderers and not necessarily unseated as a result. (A woman would never get away with it, but that’s another story. Sara Palin’s behavior is blamed on postpartum depression, Nancy Pelosi is frequently referred to as “a grandmother.” If Hillary had a dalliance with one of her young staffers–”slut” would be the word of the day.)

What’s giving us pause about Sanford is the endless and intimate confession itself. Everyone’s asking, is he doing more harm to himself by continuing to apologize? It’s not the apology per se; it’s his delivery. He’s talking to us as if he were at his kitchen table not on national television. It’s too intimate, and it makes us uncomfortable–but we can’t turn away. Whether Sanford is just slick or truly remorseful, the point is, he’s not talking the way people–especially men–are supposed to talk in public. You could say he’s using his inside voice, pouring his heart out to a lover or close friend. If this saga was unfolding in France, he’d be using “tu”–the intimate pronoun–to address reporters. Even videos of him seem intimate. He leans in and huddles up to the microphone, bows his head, lowers his eye lids, and shrugs ever so slightly. His voice is low, hoarse, and–dare I say–sultry.

The private him makes us uncomfortable because we’re not imembers of his inner circle and we know we shouldn’t be listening.  We don’t talk that way to strangers (or consequential strangers, for that matter) and he shouldn’t either. TMI, even in the digital age.

More News on the Experiment

A follow-up to my May 28 post, An Experiment Worth Trying:   One of my neighbors brought me a torn-out Reader Digest page–letters on the December issue–that she knew I’d appreciate.  The first letter, from a woman read: 

I served in the Air Force for 28 years, and one of the first things I was taught was to greet everyone, regardless of rank.  This simple act establishes a connection–whether it’s between spouses or strangers–that really does make a difference. I hope this catches on.

Another talked about a visit to China where he’d practiced saying ni hao to anyone he encountered.  At first he assumed that because most passersby responded with a smile, that Chinese people were more friendly than Americans.  Then he tested  his assumption:

Back at home, I read Joe Kita’s article and decided to try it here.  Guess what? Americans can be just as friendly.

Naturally, I then looked up the article, “What If You Said Hello to Everyone in Your Path for  Month.”  Kita, who draws on research showing the salutary effects of social connection on health and productivity, saw the results for himself: 

After a month of doing it, I feel lighter and more connected and I have a better sense of well-being. 

If we put our minds to it, many (perhaps most?) of us can  master the smile-and-hello stage–and will be the better for it.  But Juan Mann, an Australian man, took the idea a step further with his “free hugs campaign.” Check out his official website and video.  No researchers have been called in to measure the effects of Mann’s work, but you can’t argue his intent:  “to reach out and hug a stranger to brighten up their lives.”