Consequential Strangers

If market culture sees us as a mass of disconnected individuals, each without a history or enduring affiliations, the commons sees us as interdependent social creatures. It is refreshing to see this perspective affirmed in such a rich, detailed way by a new book, Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter?But Really Do (W.W. Norton), by Melina Blau and Karen L. Fingerman.

Fingerman, a psychologist and social scientist at Purdue University, and Blau, a journalist, describe the “science of casual connection” among people — how the people we take for granted like our car mechanic, the bakery clerk and the fellow dog-walkers at the park, are actually more important people in our lives than we may imagine. Their presence provides meaning, comfort and social connection and exposes us to new and interesting perspectives. When we get sick or lonely, they are likely to be there to help in valuable ways. And when we are looking for a job, our casual acquaintances are often more helpful than close friends and co-workers.

There is a certain mystery in the idea that strangers may be as important to us as close friends and family members. But as Fingerman and Blau show, friendly, casual acquaintances in countless social milieu provide a kind of emotional ballast and stability to our lives. The bakery clerk who remembers what kind of pastries we like, the old college buddy who make a critical connection to a business opportunity, the hospital nurse who offers useful advice and support to patients before and after surgery. Consequential Strangers is an inspired exploration of these sorts of transient encounters and fleeting friendships that ultimately matter a great deal.

While the book is thoroughly accessible and story-driven, there is some rigorous social science behind much of it. Much of it began in 1973, when sociologist Mark Granovetter developed the idea of “the strength of weak ties.” “Weak relationships” are more consequential than we may think, argues Granovetter, because they tend to open up worlds that lie beyond our immediate, familiar circles. So, for example, our seventh- and eighth-best friends are more likely to be connected to other networks of interesting people than our close friends. Such people act as social bridges to novel worlds that are relatively unknown to us. As weak links, they expand our sense of ourselves and the world in unexpected, serendipitous ways.

Fingerman and Blau compare the dynamic to hydrogen bonding in chemistry: “Weak chemical bonds tie large aggregations of molecules together, thus providing the main overall cohesion.” A small literature has developed around this concept, especially in the context of Internet social networks, as a way to understand social roles and functions in online communities. Two examples: Weak Links: Stabilizers of Complex Systems from Proteins to Social Networks, by Peter Csermely (thanks to Marcos Garcia for sharing this one with me), and Robert Burt’s 1992 book, Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition

The basic idea is that weak links are strategically valuable to us in gaining access to more diverse types of knowledge, perspectives and contacts. Yet at the same time, weak links help provide stability and diversity to a system. Without weak bonds, a system would be more of a predictable monoculture that is less resilient to new conditions. It would be more boring, familiar and vulnerable to unexpected disruptions.

Consequential Strangers aggregates a diverse sociological literature to show just how valuable our casual social contacts truly are. For example, studies show that people with a rich web of relationships are less likely to come down with colds — presumably because it strengthens our immune system. People who lack close community ties are more likely to die nine years earlier than those with more extensive social connections. For women, it’s 2.8 times more likely; for men, 2.3 times more likely. We are nurtured and fortified by our social connections, however casual.

The book devotes an entire chapter to people who are suffering from diseases who find consolation and rejuvenation through self-help groups. It also looks at the consequential strangers who come together as Alcoholics Anonymous, who play critical roles in helping alcoholics stay sober and remake their lives.

In some ways, the insights of Consequential Strangers are prosaic and unsurprising. Hillary Clinton popularized some of these ideas with her book, It Takes a Village, about how “it takes a village to raise a child.” Yet it helps to be reminded, and with great scientific rigor and diverse examples, just how much our peripheral social connections matter. Our mundane, everyday social encounters may seem small and meaningless, but the truth is, they add immeasurably to our quality of life. We therefore need to respect, cultivate and celebrate our relationships with consequential strangers — a goal that Blau and Fingerman help advance with their valuable book.