Do you ever wonder why some people get all the breaks--and get ahead--with seeming ease? What's their secret?  It may be that they're smart, or that they simply went to the "right" schools.  But research indicates that it's not always privilege that opens doors.  It's also a matter of "culture smarts." 

People with culture smarts can have a lively conversation with anyone--about restaurants, pop music, art, fashion, business, tech trends, the news of the day.  They're lifelong learners who keep gathering a little information about a lot of things that you don't necessarily learn from school.  You learn it from people.      

Do you have culture smarts?  To find out, print this list of occupations or copy them onto a sheet of paper.  Put a check mark next to each profession in which you know someone well enough to talk to, even if you are not close to him or her. Indicate whether that person is a relative (R), friend (F), or consequential stranger CS)--an acquaintance. Then scroll down to see what it all means and how your answers compare to national samples.

administrative assistant
baby sitter
computer programmer
factory operator
middle school teacher
personnel manager
police officer
production manager
security guard
taxi driver

What It All Means

The above list was used in a survey of 3,000 employed or previously employed adults, aged 21 to 64, conducted by sociologist Nan Lin who devised the method as a way of analyzing people's personal networks (and graciously allowed it to be reprinted in Consequential Strangers).

Best-known: Nurse–nearly 70% of the respondents knew at least one.

Somewhat well-known: 45% or more respondents listed a hairdresser, lawyer, police officer, computer programmer, or middle school teacher.

Not very well-known: Fewer than 20% knew a taxi driver, CEO, production manager, or a congressperson.

Least known: Hotel bell boy (2.7%)

But it's not just a matter of knowing the commonly held occupations, or knowing people with the "better" jobs, says Bonnie Erickson, a sociologist who uses Lin's occupation test in her own research. Culture smarts is acquired by knowing a variety of people up and down the occupational ladder. "If you know people in lots of different occupations," explains Erickson, "you have access to information and resources all over the place."

How diverse is your personal network of connections--the collection of people in your "social convoy"? 

On the low side (meaning you probably don't know a particularly diverse array of people): Knowing people in five or fewer occupations. Slightly more than 2% of those surveyed didn't know people in any of the occupations.

Average: Knowing people in six or seven occupations.

Above average:  Around a third knew people in eight or more occupations. No one knew people in all 22 jobs–in fact, 19 was the upper limit. (Knowing people in more than 19 occupations certainly isn't out of the question. In fact, one of the women I interviewed, a New York City bus driver know people in all 22!  Exzceedingly culture smart, she managed to work her way up the ladder of success despite humble beginnings.) 

The second part of this test--sorting contacts into columns--shows how you know people. Erickson found that weaker ties–consequential strangers–"give substantially greater access" to a variety of occupations and therefore to people in different economic classes. In her study of the security industry (using a different and slightly shorter list), people had relatives in "only about two" occupations, friends in twice to three times as many job categories as relatives, and weak ties in twice as many classes as friends.

You’ll probably find that your list is heavy on consequential strangers, too. Indeed, if having a diverse convoy is like getting a degree in "a little of almost everything," as Erickson puts it, then consequential strangers--people outside our intimate circles--are our best teachers.

About the Author

Melinda Blau

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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