I have this thing I do. I fall in love with strangers. I call it my “stranger love,” and it happens to me all the time.
I am in stranger love with the sweet-faced girl at the pharmacy who rings up my prescriptions, and the bearded man behind the postal counter. I have fallen hard for Annie who runs the library, and our lawn guy who shows me photos of his kids. My heart swells with affection for the wild-haired crossing guard who waves to me each afternoon, and I am in deep stranger love with every single employee at the small corner market where I buy my groceries. So much so that the first time the head checkout clerk called me by my first name, a sure sign that I was accepted as a regular, I got back in the car and phoned my husband to share the news.
I was convinced that my stranger love was decidedly odd. How could I love a mere acquaintance with almost the same fervor as friends and family? But then I stumbled upon the book Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter . . . But Really Do by journalist Melinda Blau and psychologist and social scientist Karen L. Fingerman. (www.consequentialstrangers.com) Apparently my stranger love is not a flaw in my interpersonal relationship skills, but an important human connection. According to Blau and Fingerman, these fringe relationships are “as vital to our well-being, growth, and day-to-day existence as family and close friends.”
Scientific studies have repeatedly found that one of the keys to living a longer and healthier life is to be socially active and connected. According to a recent study by psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad, people with a large network of friends and family have a fifty percent better survival rate. Loneliness and isolation, on the other hand, create the equivalent health risk of being an alcoholic or smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. I have always felt doomed by these reports–I have a small family, keep a tight circle of two or three intimate friends, and relish my solitude–but Blau and Fingerman give me hope. They have expanded the idea of social connections to include what they call the “consequential stranger,” those casual relationships in our lives that can make all the difference in the world. In other words, stranger love.
Fingerman first noticed the importance of fringe relationships when she became a mother for the first time. With the arrival of a new baby, Fingerman writes that her world narrowed considerably, but her casual acquaintances–especially other moms in the parking lot of the daycare or at the park–began to expand. She came to rely on these people, who were essentially strangers, for important advice and support.
I can relate to Fingerman’s experience. When my children were young, my relationships with consequential strangers were a lifeline. My favorite stop when I needed a boost was the local used bookstore. Although the shelves teeming with books were one kind of stimulation, the real reason I went, and still go, is to get a good dose of stranger love from the owner. Diane bought the bookstore five years ago when my children were still toddlers. On our first visit with Diane presiding behind the counter, my youngest daughter had a potty training accident in the children’s section. I was mortified. As I carried my smelly, wet child past the front counter on my way to the bathroom, I mentioned as quietly as possible that “we’d had an issue.” Diane’s eyes widened as she took in the situation, but she calmly continued to ring up her customer. A few minutes later, as I carried my bare-bottomed child back through, I noticed that the line of waiting customers had grown considerably. Without a word or even looking up from the cash resister, Diane, a mother herself, handed me carpet cleaner and a roll of paper towels. From the embarrassing incident, a spark of love was born, and over the years, Diane has become one of my favorite consequential strangers.
“It is certainly not an insult to call a person a ‘consequential stranger,’” write Blau and Fingerman. “These are vital social connections–people who help you get through the day and make life more interesting. They might not know you as well as those in your inner circle, but they might have similar qualities. Our acquaintances, in fact, often provide some of the same things we expect from intimates: fun times, a sense of history and continuity, emotional support, spiritual lessons, and quite possibly aggravation.”
Joel Stein is a humorist and contributor to Time magazine. A few years ago, when Time published its annual list of the 100 most influential people of the year, Stein complained that the list didn’t really name anyone that affected him personally. So he made his own list. What started as humor ended up as an interesting foray into discovering who matters in our lives. After listing eighteen loved ones, the rest of the people on Stein’s list turned out to be consequential strangers. “Probably not people he’d invite home for Thanksgiving dinner.” People who had helped him advance his career; people who keep his life running smoothly, like the guy who showed him how to hook up his ipod in his car; and a few people who had been there for the big moments in his life, like his real estate agent. Eighty-two people who influenced Stein’s life one way or another, but who were still only acquaintances at best.
Researchers call this the “strength of weak ties,” first identified by sociologist Mark Granovetter over thirty years ago. He found that although we think it is our intimate relationships that help us the most in situations such as finding a new job, it is actually our casual acquaintances that provide the greatest leg up. Our friends and family tend to have similar contacts, ideas, and information as we do. But consequential strangers, whose lives overlap just briefly with ours, tend to extend out into the world in different directions. These casual relationships act as a social bridge to a wider world experience.
Recently I reconnected with a friend from college. Seth and I hung out almost every day during freshman year, but then our lives diverged and after college we lost touch. During my brief foray into the world of Facebook a couple of years ago, we “friended” each other. Even though I broke off my relationship with Facebook, my connection with Seth continues. These days he is a pastor living in Maine. Although I have no interest in organized religion, I have his church website bookmarked in my favorites folders, and I have read all his sermons. Every couple of weeks we email back and forth. He rants intelligently about the state of the world, and I send him poems I think he would like. We recommend books to each other, and offer writing advice. He is one of my weak ties that broadens my horizons.
Howard, my acupuncturist, is another weak tie in my life and landed in the top 20 of my 100 most influential people list. Not only does he send me down the healing path and shows infinite kindness when I am needing solace, but each session with him is so mind-expanding that I sit in my car afterwards and write notes on all the things we discussed. He grew up in Southern California with an Italian mother and a Chinese father. I grew up in a typical midwestern Protestant family. He has spent years studying and training in the areas of Chinese medicine and alternative healing. I got a degree at a small liberal arts college. I learn a lot from probing Howard’s brilliant and interesting mind. He is my bridge to a wider world.
Blau and Fingerman state that consequential strangers not only influence and broaden our lives, but they support us most when we are in times of crisis or need. At first, I was skeptical. I understood their examples of Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups where strangers help each other surmount seemingly impossible obstacles. But in day-to-day life, when the chips are down, isn’t it your close friends and family who see you through?
Not really, according to Blau. She writes, “A prolonged job hunt, a chronic health condition, a sudden reversal of fortune–these are times that try our souls. When you’re in trouble, so are your loved ones. Also, those you know best might have too many opinions or too much emotion about your life challenges. Find an outsider who’s been there. It’s often easier to accept help and reveal our anxieties to people we know less well.”
Last year, when I hurt myself in an accident, my family and friends were there for me, but so were a surprisingly large number of consequential strangers. A couple of busy moms whom I hardly know dropped off dinners, Diane from the bookstore wrote me long, funny emails while I was stranded on the couch, and my daughter’s art teacher helped me through my first slow, painful walks. When I think back to on it, I can see that consequential strangers were crucial to my recovery, and often it was easier for me to receive help from people I hardly knew.
Last month, a woman I really like but don’t know very well began to cry when I asked her how she was doing Swiping at her eyes she said, “I don’t know why I’m crying. I feel so silly. I hardly know you.” Blau and Fingerman would say she broke down precisely because I was a stranger: I didn’t know about her mortgage, her relationship with her husband, her middle-of-the-night fears, or how many calories she’d had for breakfast. Because our relationship held few expectations, it allowed her, for just a moment, to drop her brave face and reveal how she really felt. Blau states, “With consequential strangers, we’re often freer and more expressive than we are at home, where loved ones tend to typecast us. We can stretch ourselves with acquaintances and move beyond familiar roles.”
And that is what I think our relationships with consequential strangers does for us: it opens and stretches our hearts in new and unfamiliar ways. People who are essentially strangers begin to matter to us. We begin to fall in love with them, and in turn, with the larger world. A prayer by Sri Sarada Devi reads: Learn to make the whole world your own./ No one is a stranger, my child;/ this whole world is your own.
Blau and Fingerman encourage their readers to open themselves to the many consequential strangers in their lives. “While those closest to our heart are synonymous with home, consequential strangers anchor us in the world and give us a sense of being plugged into something larger. They enhance and enrich our lives.”
Such as the guy who owns the art supply store and wears a yellow Charlie Brown t-shirt, the couple from my writing class who will edit this essay, my daughter’s magical second grade teacher from two years back, even our UPS driver who grumbles about his knees and the neighborhood dogs but waves to me when I see him driving around town. The list is long and the community is wide. And tying it all together is a ribbon of love. A beautiful ribbon of stranger love.