Consequential Strangers

Why All Relationships Matter

The Paradox of Fleeting Relationships in Small Places

Being in a small space with a stranger can be both intimidating and liberating

New York Times reporter Ariel Kaminer is surprised that four minutes into a shared cab ride, she and her co-rider, a recent college graduate, "had already done money and politics, things people supposedly don't discuss with strangers.  So I asked if she was a person of faith, and bingo, we hit the trifecta, all before the meter even registered $5." 

Kaminer's piece, Taxicab Confessions, written after the second day of a new cab-sharing program in Manhattan brought to mind some fascinating research I uncovered when working on a chapter about how relationships unfold.  It helps explain what makes sharing a small space with a stranger so intimidating and, at the same time, why we sometimes break all the rules and and let it rip with someone we just met, even in a very short period of time.

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The Small Space Issue

Long ago, the famed sociologist Erving Goffman observed the many ways people have of defending themselves against strangers in public: putting belongings on an adjacent seat, burying your nose in a book or newspaper, and, more recently, talking or texting on your cell.  And in the absence of such props, we practice "civil inattention," by staring blankly, acting as if we're not really looking or listening. Kaminer hits on this in her piece, referring to an unwritten rule of cab-sharing: "shut up.  If anyone tries to speak, politely ignore her."

But, as anyone who has shared a crowded elevator or subway car knows, civil inattention is a little trickier in small spaces.  Forty years ago, anthropologist Edward T. Hall theorized four human "distance zones" that correspond to increasing levels of closeness: public (twelve or more feet), social (four to twelve), personal (four to eighteen inches), and intimate (eighteen inches or less). Some modern social scientists dispute Hall's theory, because it doesn't allow for individual variations in how close people stand in conversation.  But it seems to explain why most of us feel so uncomfortable in elevators, subways, or a shared taxi where we're less than four feet apart from a stranger. 

Indeed, Kaminer found that she couldn't entice anyone to share her cab at first, even after offering to pay the full fare!  And yet when she finally shares a few rides, she encounters the recent college graduate and others who are shockingly willing to talk about themselves. "Why were New Yorkers so reluctant to share a cab and yet so willing to share everything else?"

Breaking the Rules of Self-Disclosure

Self-disclosure is the engine that drives new relationships. In the "initiating" stage, we size up the stranger and ask "safe" questions that we're willing to answer ourselves--background, values, details of everyday life. As we move into the "experimenting"  stage, disclosure broadens--you touch on a number of topics.  Depending on the circumstances and the two people involved, disclosure can quickly become "deep" and more revealing as well. It usually takes time to build up trust. Clearly, chemistry and common interests can hasten the process. But it also matters where you are--and who's next to you.

Psychologist Zick Rubin identified the aptly-named, "stranger-on-a-train" phenomenon, in which we disclose personal information to people we don't know and probably won't see again. We can talk about ourselves without worrying that it will get back to the people closest to us. Rubin also conducted studies in bus terminals and airport lounges that suggest we're more likely to tell our troubles to a stranger if the other person opens up first. It's like the old you-show-me-yours-and-I'll-show-you-mind game that kids play.

Kaminer doesn't reveal what she disclosed to her fellow riders but perhaps identifying herself as a reporter was enough to get the ball rolling. Or perhaps it was the cab itself.  After one of her co-riders tells Kaminer he sees "nothing odd about cab sharing," he proceeds to reveal details of his life that she is sure he wouldn't share with subway riders: "...he is on his way to his therapist's office, which is on the same block as his wife's therapist's office and right next to their couple's therapist.  Ever gotten that much information between subway stops?"

To be sure, such off-the-cuff sharing happens at the gym, in a cozy neighborhood bar or cafe--or in any type of public or commercial "being space," where the environment is conducive to hanging out and chatting. Of course, we are more likely to open up to those closest to us, but relationship researchers find that we are also inclined to offer up bits of our private selves when we're set apart from others, when we feel safe, and when we feel like we can get away from the other person if we need to. 

So far, cab sharing in Manhattan doesn't seem to be catching on. On the day of Kaminer's experiment, the only takers were other journalists eager to write about the experience. Not to worry, you can still tell your troubles to the cab driver.

Journalist Melinda Blau, author of Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don't Seem to Matter, researches and writes about relationships and trends.

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