Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Consequential Strangers"

We know they are part of our lives, but we do not often recognize how important they are. Now we have a name for them, coupled with a cogent analysis of their role and function.

Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman have called them: "Consequential Strangers" in their new book. As the subtitle announces, they are: "people who don't seem to matter... but really do." Link here.

For an outline of the book's salient points, see Blau's interview in Time magazine. Link here.

Blau sees human relationships occupying a continuum between strangers to intimates. Friends, family, and lovers are all intimates, to differing degrees. Consequential strangers are more than strangers and less than friends.

We might think that this continuum is structured like a pyramid. We know far more consequential strangers than we have soul mates. I would see these strangers as the necessary base without which we have little chance to develop satisfying intimate relationships.

Blau uses an apt metaphor to describe their function. She calls consequential strangers: "... the familiar signposts of our day." And she adds that while: "... our intimates anchor us at home,... consequential strangers make us feel grounded in the world."

This is vitally important, especially in the great cosmopolitan metropolis where too many people often feel ungrounded. Many people come to the great city from elsewhere, sacrificing the familiarity of family and community to pursue career goals. For them consequential strangers can be the first step out of anomie.

Blau emphasizes that consequential strangers are often more important than our intimates. Surely, they are easier to deal with and are less problematical. Since relationships with them are more formal, there is less drama too. Beyond that, Blau asserts that consequential strangers provide better information and keep us open to the outside world.

In her words: "We've been conditioned to think that our intimates are the most important people in our lives. But both in our personal lives and in our business endeavors, the freshest information, the exposure to the most novel experiences, comes to us from the people at the periphery."

This may be slightly overstated, but it is also to the point. We are often of one mind with our intimates; they rarely introduce a radically different perspective into a conversation. And since we are often as familiar with their world as we are with our own, they offer little that is strange, different, or challenging.

But why do we devalue consequential strangers? Blau suggests that we have been conditioned to believe that our intimate relationships are of surpassing importance.

But isn't this a basic precept has been handed down to us by the therapy culture.

Isn't therapy itself something like a pseudo-intimate relationship that is supposed to allow us to form more perfect love relationships.

You pour your heart out to a therapist who barely reciprocates. From that you are supposed to learn that pouring your heart out is a good thing, only you need to find someone who will reciprocate. In therapy this passes for a cure.

As Johns Hopkins psychologist Jerome Frank once said, therapists mostly deal with people who are demoralized. I would use the sociological term and say that they are suffering from anomie.

Whatever you call it, the siren song of therapy has led people to believe that it can be cured by intimacy and love. This is an illusion, and probably a dangerous one at that.

Blau and Fingerman are closer to the truth when they suggest that the way out of anomie begins with consequential strangers. I would call it the ground level of your relationship pyramid.

Who are consequential strangers? They range from your dry cleaner to your doorman to the people you often run into at the gym. Familiar faces, people you connect with through an informal greeting ritual, they make us feel that we belong, that we are part of something.

How does the concept apply to treatment programs? Blau answers by referring to AA meetings. Where individual therapy offers something resembling intimacy, AA meetings allow individuals to develop relationships with consequential strangers. Sometimes friendships form through AA, but most often people derive a benefit from a room full of familiar faces, people who make you feel like you belong.

I would add that it is not an accident that when you are interviewing for an executive position, you will be judged by how well or poorly you relate to the waiter and busboy.

If you are going to manage a large department, containing a largish number of individuals, you must be adept at interacting with consequential strangers.

1 comment:

Melinda Blau said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reading of the TIME Q & A. There's much more to the book of course, and I hope you and your readers will check it out. Although the concept itself feels incredibly familiar and instantly recognizable, the book looks at issues like marketing, health, urban development and a range of other topics related to consequential strangers, including the "downside." In that chapter, for example, I talk about the therapeutic relationship as being potential problematic because the client often wants to be, or imagines himself, as more than a CS to the therapist. Indeed, many of our CS are people we hire or work for, or in some other way are either one-up or one-down from. This can lead to difficulties in the perception of a relationship. To you, your therapist feels like an intimate--you think about what it said during sessions, the therapist's voice is in often your head--but in reality he or she is a CS. To the therapist, you're "my Monday at 4 o'clock," and little thought is given to the relationship with you or your latest interaction.
I hope you'll continue to think about consequential strangers. Everyone who has read the book says it changes the way they view their own social landscape.
Melinda Blau