Melinda Blau

 

On her and Karen Fingerman's book Consequential Strangers: Turning Everyday Connections Into Life-Changing Moments

Cover Interview of August 23, 2010

The wide angle

Throughout my career, I wrote books and articles about intimate relationships.  When I made a move from New York City to Northampton, Massachusetts in 1990, I left all my everyday acquaintances behind—the butcher, the dry cleaner, the people I’d have a five-minute conversation with on the street.  It was then that I first realized what an important role those casual relationships played in my life.  One needed acquaintances for a new place to feel like home.  In 2006, when I read a chapter by psychologist Karen Fingerman, “Consequential Strangers: Peripheral Relationships Across the Life Span,” I knew it was an idea whose time had come:

In the 21st century, our social lives are such that most of us spend more time with consequential strangers than with loved ones.  In a review of 1000 articles in family science journals, Fingerman found in 2002 that only 5% of studies focused on non-intimate relationships.  And yet, because we live “niched” lives, hopscotching from one responsibility or interest to another, the majority of our daily interactions are not with loved ones.  Rather, we connect with people we know on a casual basis:  work colleagues, service providers, merchants, doctors, gym buddies, neighbors, and other acquaintances.  Our intimates provide comfort at home, but consequential strangers anchor us in the world.

The Internet accelerated the ascendance of consequential strangers.  Community studies since the late sixties have shown that we turn to many sources for support, not just our loved ones or people nearby.  Communication technologies of the past, such as the telephone, allowed us to “reach out and touch” and thereby changed the way we manage our relationships.  However, the Internet and mobile phones upped the ante.  Today’s communication means are cheap, quick, and graphic, making us more aware of the members our personal networks.  And just as consequential strangers dominate our face-to-face encounters, most of our online conversations are with former school chums, long-distance collaborators, and random people with whom we share a particular interest.

We cannot thrive without consequential strangers.  Close ties are important for our survival, but they are not the whole story.  The fact is, our loved ones–our strong ties—know what we know, think the way we think.  Information and opportunity more likely come from people who are different from us, loosely connected, and who, therefore, act as “bridges” to new ideas and different kinds of social groups.  Looking at real-life circumstances, it becomes clear that consequential strangers are vital in handling everyday needs and unexpected crises.  Through weak ties, a woman carves out an untraditional career, a quadruple amputee survives the trauma, a widow makes a new life for herself.  The concept is equally relevant to collectives, exemplified in the book through anecdotes about Penn State College, innovations at Proctor & Gamble, and water management in Ghana.

A diverse network is a valuable network.  Size doesn’t matter as much as the social mix.  Health research suggests that being connected to different types of people benefits the immune system, hastens recovery, and is even associated with longevity.  Knowing a variety of people, up and down socio-economic ladder, also puts more information at our fingertips, makes us better communicators, and bodes well for success.  Granted, dealing with people who are different can also sap our attention and trigger our own unconscious prejudice.  But diversity research also suggests that by opening ourselves to consequential strangers, we can begin to discover the commonalities that bind us as humans.