“Consequential Strangers” How the People You Know a Little Benefit Your Life a Lot — Part 1

So today the emphasis is on the “read” part.

I recently read an excerpt from a book called “Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter…But Really Do” by Melinda Blau and Karen L. Fingerman. I may have to make time to read more soon, because it intrigued me; it’s an idea I’ve thought of before, but not in such specific terms; and the concept seems to be getting attention lately.

Just as an aside for all you fellow reading addicts on limited budgets, there’s a great online library app called “Overdrive,” that allows you to borrow audiobooks and e books on your phone or tablet for free, using your library card number. I’ve put this book on my request list since my library system doesn’t offer it yet.

From the little I’ve read so far from and about the book, I gather that the argument is that though our primary relationships – those with our family members and close friends – are the most important to our physical and emotional well-being, the people we see often and know only a little, people we might call acquaintances, also matter in and enrich our lives and can even add to our well-being.

These are not really “strangers,” in the sense of the millions of people we don’t know at all. But they are not close enough to be called friends either. They are people we come into contact with regularly and whom we usually know by name or at least by sight and may exchange a few words with. So we could call them secondary relationships.

In a world where people can have a thousand “friends” on social media, we sometimes tend to call everyone we know a friend. But of course there is an important difference between our inner circle of close friends, and other people we know more casually. Still, this book provides the insightful observation that these other people we know, especially if we see them regularly, also make an important contribution to our lives.

They are often people we know in one specific context – neighbors, co-workers, the barista at our favorite coffee place, PTA members, and service providers – such as our car mechanic, hair stylist, and chiropractor. We tend to see them repeatedly over time, sometimes every day or week, sometimes just a few times a year. But we gradually get used to seeing them and get to know a little about them, their lives outside that context, and maybe some things we have in common.

I’ve been thinking of who my “consequential strangers” are, and made a partial list. First, there are my neighbors, in the conventional sense — the people who live near me, especially the other renters in my four-plex, such as the lady in the apartment next to mine. Though we know little of the details of each others’ lives, we have a few of the most basic things in common, we are women, unmarried, in our middle years of life, who like animals –particularly her tiny, sweet dog, Ella. We also share a wall, which is in itself a kind of distant intimacy.

Living in close proximity, we look out for each other, bring in mail and packages if the other is out of town, and so on. We even exchanged phone numbers so we can send texts to communicate such logistical matters when necessary.

Then there is my across-the-street neighbor, an elderly gentleman who takes care of his infirm wife and helps out several other neighbors. I often see him out tending his tidy Japanese garden when I pass by for my walk, and we talk for awhile. He once gave me an origami bird he made, letting my choose the color I wanted from a large jar of the tiny creations he was generously distributing.

Further down the street is the family with three Golden Retrievers, my parents’ favorite breed. I see them out walking their large canine family sometimes, but don’t know their names or the dog’s names. One time one of the Retrievers escaped and ended up by my house, and I knew where to take her.

In the next category are the people – and their dogs — that I see a little beyond my neighborhood, on my daily walking route. I have come to depend on seeing them, petting their dogs, getting to know the names of the dogs first, and then sometimes the names of the owners. I think this item on the list deserves its own post, because these people and pets have become important to me, a part of my social life, and a vicarious way to enjoy pets when I don’t have any of my own at this time. So look for more about this distinct social sphere in Part 2.

Then there’s my landlord, also a neighbor just down the street, who is always ready for a chat and available to help with whatever I need, even when it goes beyond the usual maintenance you’d expect from a landlord. He even graciously came in one time to dispose of an unusually fierce looking insect from under my kitchen sink.

Though I work partly from home, alone, I also have a part-time job, as a massage therapist at a hotel.

At any given time, I have about half a dozen co-workers, which I usually see and work with one at a time. Over the years, a couple of these have stayed the same, while the rest come and go.

One is a partially blind man who started working there several years before I did about 12 years ago, so I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. I’ve heard about the high school soccer careers of his two daughters, and their subsequent departures for college; his training with his guide dog, after years using only a cane; and how that dog has changed his life.

Once-in-awhile, if his wife is out of town or busy, I’ll drive him home, with his dog, Roderick, in the back seat. So Roderick is a kind of “co-worker” too, though when he gets to the massage center his harness comes off and he’s off duty.

There’s also a large and varied front desk staff at the hotel, who schedule my appointments, so I speak with them frequently, and try to remember all their names. This has become even harder, now that there is a set of twins among them. Thankfully there are name tags for backup. Sometimes we’ll chat for a few minutes when they call, or before or after a massage. Like with the other therapists, some change often, while a few have been around quite awhile. 

And of course I can’t forget my clients, though since most of them are visiting from out of town, I don’t get to work with them regularly. Some I see only once, others maybe once or twice a year, and one requested me multiple times during her stay. Some of these leave me with interesting stories and a feeling of connection that keeps me thinking about them after they’ve gone back home.

Now, getting a little further out in the circle of acquaintance are the fairly universally friendly staff at Trader Joe’s, my main place to shop; the clerks at the Culligan store where I fill my water bottles nearly every week; and the employees and owners at the local farm stand I like to frequent.

Since I don’t have any family that lives in town, I’m not a particularly social person, and my best friend — like me — is both busy and on the semi-reclusive side, I don’t see a lot of primary relationship people in person in an average month, except twice a week at my place of worship, where everyone there, though not all close friends, are closer than consequential strangers. They are in a deeper and closer sense my community.

Still, the more casual relationships stated above, those consequential ‘strangers,’ do fill a role in my somewhat solitary days, and there are some of them I’d miss if I never saw them again. So now I’ll likely give even more thought to these “peripheral” people, appreciate what they add to my life, and try to add some brightness to theirs as well.

So, there’s not so much a call to action this week but just some food for thought. Who are the “consequential strangers” in your life, and what do they contribute to your well-being and engagement in life?

4 thoughts on ““Consequential Strangers” How the People You Know a Little Benefit Your Life a Lot — Part 1

  1. As one of the consequential strangers and parent of a famous neighborhood pup, I appreciated your take on the crossing of paths between people and the connectivity that binds us on levels we don’t often consider. Fun read – Thank you

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