Melinda Blau


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

Cover Interview of August 23, 2010

A close-up

In chapter 2, “The View From Above,” I write that social networks are like traffic jams.

You can easily see the cars that surround you—your intimates.  However, it takes a helicopter to view your entire entourage—your “social convoy.”  So take a moment and mentally position yourself above the road.  You can see yourself motoring along the highway of life, accompanied by your loved ones, your closest friends, and the various acquaintances you pick up along the way.  A handful of people travel alongside you for miles and miles, perhaps for the whole journey.  The peripheral people, neither family nor close friends—your consequential strangers—are often there for a particular segment of the trip and tend to serve specific needs.  They might help you through rough passages, lead you to important resources such as information or others who can help, or provide comic relief when it’s most needed.  Because your convoy changes as you change, some travelers drop back for a while or fall so far behind that you barely see them in your rearview mirror.  Some members of your convoy, such as coworkers or fellow volunteers, also know each other.  They form a distinct “cluster”—a group within your convoy.  Imagine them riding together in a minivan.

Bringing people into your convoy when you need them is a key coping mechanism in a complex world.  Chapter 7, “The Future of Consequential Strangers,” highlights a story of how communities are created in response to challenge.

When his son Billy was born, Jim Hourihan remembers the nurse whisking the baby out of the delivery room.  “He was gray and not breathing right. Christine knew something was wrong, but no one said anything.  By accident, I saw ‘Down Syndrome’ on a paper I had to sign, and I ran out after the doctor.”  Although in the years to come, the family would come to view Billy as a gift, a child who would inspire an unexpected sense of grace and acceptance of others, Hourihan admits, “It was like a funeral for the first few days.”  The “turning point,” he recalls, occurred a few months later when he, Christine, and several members of their extended clan attended a “buddy walk” in Plainfield, New Jersey.  They had learned about the event through the National Down Syndrome Society, which cosponsors hundreds of annual buddy walks to raise money and awareness.  “It was a comfort for us to talk to parents who’ve been there, and to see older kids having fun, playing baseball,” Hourihan recalls.  “But there was no group in Bergen County, where we live. So my mother said, ‘Let’s start one.’”