Your favorite barista. Your acquaintance at the gym. Your fellow dog walker. Your co-worker. Perhaps these people are more important to your health and welfare than you realize. In her new book, Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don't Seem to Matter ... but Really Do (W.W. Norton), author Melinda Blau and Purdue psychology professor Karen Fingerman explore the meaning of these often overlooked ties. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached Blau at her home in Northampton, Mass.
What is a consequential stranger?
If you look at the relationship continuum from stranger to soul mate, consequential strangers fall in that vast territory just beyond strangers and just short of friends. When people say they have 765 friends on Facebook, most of them are consequential strangers. Your hairdresser is probably a consequential stranger. Your lawyer may be. The person who comes in to clean your house and who has been doing it for 30 years might be a close consequential stranger. But you also have a lot of people on the periphery: the nice woman in accounting whom you see on occasion, people in a yoga class. You don't know them that well. You may not even have had lunch with them or had coffee with them, but you know all of them. They are the familiar signposts of our day. What I always say is that our intimates anchor us at home, but our consequential strangers make us feel grounded in the world.
You write about the "paradox of periphery." What is that?
We've been conditioned to think that our intimates are the most important people in our life. But both in our personal lives and in our business endeavors, the freshest information, the exposure to the most novel experiences, comes from people on the periphery. That's because our intimates, or the people in the center, know what each other know. Intimates think the way we think and they know what we know, whereas people who are what the sociologists call "weak ties" don't. They're different from us, they link to other networks and different kinds of information, and therefore they are the place where we find opportunity.
You write in your book about "social convoys" What are they?
As we travel through life, we're surrounded by intimates and consequential strangers who make the journey with us. Some of them go the whole distance, usually our intimates, and others are there for specific periods of time whether it's because you have a particular job, because you're interested in a particular subject or because you have a crisis in your life such as illness. My feeling is that it's important to look at your life as a cavalcade of people, not just a series of events, because then you get to see how all relationships matter and all relationships affect you.
What is the power of place?
We can't talk about relationships without talking about the context in which they occur. If you just think of yourself walking through the bad part of town, you're on guard, your shoulders are up near your ears, your heart might be beating a little bit faster, you're not exactly open to having conversations with strangers. But if you're in a welcoming, safe environment, whether it's a store or a park or the barbershop where you know some people or the tavern on the corner, you're more likely to open up to a stranger. And, of course, all relationships develop from stranger to consequential stranger, and sometimes consequential strangers become close friends and we might even marry them. So place is very important in terms of our openness, our willing to disclose.
You believe Christmas cards are significant, right?
Yes. One of the earliest studies that Karen did was about Christmas cards. Who sends them? Why do they send them? She did a study showing that we send cards mostly to our consequential strangers the service providers, the plumber, people we know from church or school or other venues, where you don't really know them that well, but you appreciate them. Or people you'd like to get to know better. So in a way, looking at your Christmas-card list, you can see beyond the intimate circle. Who you send Christmas cards to, probably a good two-thirds if not more go to people you don't know that well, but you still want to acknowledge that they're part of your social convoy.
Do 12-step programs fit into this?
Oh, absolutely. [That's] what sociologists call a single-stranded relationship. It's around an activity, a place we know [people] from the coffee shop or the gym. We know them because we stuff envelopes with them at a fundraiser. And so AA is very much like that. They're all there trying to heal, and you quickly get to a very, very deep level of exposure because you're talking about your personal life. But once you go home, you may speak with these people on the phone, you may meet them for coffee or brunch, but they're not part of your central core of intimates. Some may become so, of course. But all support groups have that in common.
And gym relationships?
We disclose to people at the gym. We're relaxed, we're working out, we know it's not going to get back to our intimates. So a woman walking on the treadmill next to another woman whom she hardly knows, [who] is preparing for her wedding, starts talking about her trepidations about what her in-laws are going to be like at the wedding. She does not say that to her close friends because it might get back to her husband-to-be, but she can say it to this woman at the gym. The old rules of disclosure were, we disclose after we have a certain amount of history and we have a shared trust. Sometimes, given the right circumstances, we may open up a lot earlier than that.