December 1st, 2013

In Praise Of ‘Consequential Strangers’

People Who Don’t Seem To Matter, But Really Do.

guidoOur barista, bank teller, waitress, neighborhood grocer, sushi chef, barber and dry cleaner — just to name a few — populate our days and enrich our lives, but we often take them for granted. Yet these are the very people who bring information and novelty into our daily routines, and open us up to new opportunities.

What do these relative outsiders do for our sense of self? How do they satisfy our competing needs for individuality and connection? Why do we need to notice these important yet overlooked players in our lives? These are the questions posed and answered by co-authors Karen Fingerman and Melinda Blau in their book Consequential Strangers, an exploration of peripheral relationships.

Practically every article and book, every therapist, and every relationship guru in the media focus almost exclusively on primary relationships — family and very close friends — or “intimates,” as Fingerman and Blau call them. However, there is a dearth of attention paid to individuals’ secondary — or even tertiary — connections, including friends of friends and their acquaintances who play critical roles in our lives.

‘The paradox of the periphery: Those we know less well are more likely to keep us informed and excited about life.’

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. Many of them are associated solely with the neighborhood or the office, the trolley station, a store, the bank, the library. These kinds of connections are referred to as anchored relationships — those that develop over time and are limited to a particular place or activity.

The authors assert that these people have access to resources intimates might not and can provide perspective and support not easily found among those closest to us. To this end, Fingerman and Blau’s treatise is especially relevant today when so many unemployed and underemployed are relying on social networking contacts on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, where these acquaintances are not part of an inner circle, but could know of a job not publicly advertised.

booklook2“Every day we interact with people who influence our lives in small and great ways but who are not part of our insider group: a yoga teacher, a fitness trainer, a pet sitter, a former colleague, a “friend” on Facebook, the proprietor of a favorite shop, a professional contact known mostly by phone. Each of these relations is different from the other, but they all are consequential strangers — people who are so much a part of our every day life that we often take them for granted,” say Fingerman and Blau.

“Each gives you something unique — a new opportunity, a different way of looking at a problem, an unexpected kindness, an experience you might otherwise never have had.”

The authors point out that in actuality, all of our social ties are part of a fluid continuum of relationships. Consequential strangers occupy the broad region between complete strangers on the far left and intimates — our strongest connections — on the far right.

‘Consequential strangers are as vital to our well-being, growth, and day-to-day existence as family and close friends.’

“If you think of your life as an ongoing drama, your intimates are the featured players, and consequential strangers assume supporting roles. A good narrative needs both,” say Fingerman and Blau.

“Each of us has a unique collection of consequential strangers — people outside our circle of family and close friends. They range from longstanding acquaintances to people we encounter on occasion or only in certain places. They cut a wide swath across our lives, and yet each is linked to us in some way and fills a specific need.”

coffeeRegarding Fingerman and Blau’s reference to people we may encounter “…only in certain places,” they write extensively about “being spaces” — places where relationships first unfold, such as the gym, the salon, a favorite coffee shop or tavern, and other environments that are conducive to letting outsiders in. (For a more in-depth look at the relevance of being spaces, see my earlier post Why ‘Third Place’ Is A Good Place.)

The authors believe that it is often in “throwaway moments and every day conversations” with our consequential strangers that we acquire important information, decide whether or not to embrace a new idea or product, or try on a new persona that is less likely to be welcome at home.

“The fact is, most of the time we need and want both kinds of relationships. We can’t live without intimates, but we also can’t go quite as far without the consequential strangers in our convoy.”

‘It becomes clear that your life is not merely a string of events; it is a cavalcade of people.’

I found Consequential Strangers to be an engrossing read with lots of great insights on the human condition. Fingerman and Blau do a fine job of illustrating the importance of individuals we often take for granted yet who enrich our lives in ways not immediately noticeable, but that could prove highly significant.


Consequential Strangers: The Power Of People Who Don’t Seem To Matter…But Really Do

Karen Fingerman and Melinda Blau

W. W. Norton & Company


Hardcover, 298 pages

ISBN-13: 978-0393067033

2 comments to In Praise Of ‘Consequential Strangers’

  • When my kids were young I didn’t have any “Consequential Strangers” because life was already too full. But now that they’re grown I have many and they are important to me. This reminder will make me let them know – Thanks!

    • Sal Giametta

      Glad you found this post of interest, Sara. Though I first read this book when it was published in 2009, I revisit selected chapters often and thought it would be an appropriate recommendation, particularly at this time of year.

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