Do You Want the People on the Periphery of Your Life to Become More Consequential?

Even acquaintances can be important people in our lives

Posted Sep 05, 2009

You know those people on the periphery of your life - the friend of a friend, the people you recognize from your rounds of errands but don't really know, the fellow fans or team members you see only at the games? We probably all have scores of them - maybe hundreds. Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman believe they are far more important than we realize. In the title of their new book, they call these peripherals "Consequential Strangers." Their subtitle summarizes their thesis in a dozen words: "The power of people who don't seem to matter...but really do."

Melinda Blau is a fellow Psych Today blogger, and Karen Fingerman is a social scientist whose work I have long admired. She's the one who combed through stacks of journals that supposedly published relationships studies and found that the relationships they reported on were overwhelmingly romantic or marital ones. That, I think, is wholly inappropriate at a time when Americans spend more years of their adult life unmarried than married and when relationships such as friendships are so important to so many. That's what I took from her study. In her book with Blau, she is suggesting that it is not just friendships that deserve more attention and appreciation.

When I first started graduate school and just about every class meeting felt new and exciting, there was one guest lecturer, sociologist Mark Granovetter, whose message would stick with me all these decades later. Maybe it was the catchy phrase he used to describe his findings - "the strength of weak ties." Or maybe it was also the substance of his findings - that the people who help us find jobs are often not close friends or family members, but acquaintances. Because acquaintances are less entangled in our usual networks, they link us to more different people, more information, and more opportunities - and ultimately, that new job.

Blau and Fingerman are suggesting that consequential strangers are not just good for information and jobs. They help us develop our identities, they can make us feel more at home in new places, they inspire us to think about things in new ways, and sometimes they can empathize with us in ways that the people we know best cannot. They can be good for our health and happiness, and they can nudge us to get involved in politics and in our communities.

I was taken by the authors' arguments for many reasons, but most of all, because these are the very points my colleagues and I have been developing - only with regard to friends rather than acquaintances. So now I like Consequential Strangers for another reason. I think that in a big, broad sense, it is a sign of our times.

The authors do not make these arguments explicitly, but I think their work speaks to the unmooring of marriage from its once-sturdy post, and the ousting of the one-size-fits-all mentality from our understanding of how to live a good and meaningful life.

First, the point about marriage. There is a way of practicing marriage and coupling that I like to call "intensive coupling." This is the way of relating that has been celebrated in so many popular songs that all sound more or less the same: "You are my everything;" "I just want to be your everything;" "There goes my everything." It is the sort of relationship that is envious and enmeshing. Partners do not encourage one another to pursue their own interests and friendships - they resent that, as if it is a betrayal of the relationship. Those of us who have grown up around so much matrimania may see intensive coupling as ordinary, but by historical standards, it is quite strange.

If intensive coupling still had a stranglehold on our cultural imaginations, there would not be much room for the case that friends, and even consequential strangers, can be truly important in our lives. Blau and Fingerman are not proposing that consequential strangers can take the place of the people who are closest to us. But a book-length argument that people on the periphery of our lives can actually contribute to our health, happiness, identity, and growth - well, all that stuff was supposed to be in the domain of the spouse.

From 1980 to 2000, the practice of marriage in America changed. A foursome of marriage scholars documented a pattern of less intensive coupling over that time. Married couples in 2000, compared to those in 1980, are less likely to have their main meal together, go out for fun together, visit friends together, or work around the home together. They also have fewer shared friends than they used to, and somewhat fewer groups to which they both belong. Paul Amato, Alan Booth, David R. Johnson, and Stacy J. Rogers titled their book about the phenomenon Alone Together. They think it is a troublesome trend, and even report data suggesting that couples who have fewer friends in common and who belong to fewer of the same organizations rate the quality of their marriage as lower. I wonder whether they are evaluating marriage by the "you are my everything standard," and declaring their own as deficient if it doesn't conform.

The growing recognition of the important place of friends in many of our lives, along with Blau and Fingerman's articulation of the ways in which even acquaintances can be far more significant to us than we typically realize, are indications of the flexibility of contemporary American lives. No longer do Americans march in lockstep through a life path that begins in early adulthood with marriage, then continues through parenting and retirement and grandparenting. That path, even including an intensive version of the coupling, is still a possibility, but now it is only one of many options. In the 21st century, we have greater opportunities to create the interpersonal lives that best fit our unique sensibilities. We can pursue our own blends of intimacy and privacy, sociability and solitude. We can find information, values and inspiration in any number of venues.

Personally, I do not want so many of the people on the periphery of my life acting as if they are not actually strangers. Blau and Fingerman described approvingly the "5-10 rule" of check-ins at Westin hotels: "Spend at least five minutes and walk ten steps with each guest." I read that and made a mental note to avoid Westin hotels. When I've finally arrived at a hotel, weary and hungry, after a cross-country flight, a delay at the baggage claim, and a van to the hotel, I really do not want my check-in extended to five minutes. (Now if you want to offer me a cookie, as some hotels now do, that's a different story.)

There is a brief section on loneliness and marital status in Consequential Strangers, so I can't end this post before commenting on that. Discussing research by John Cacioppo, Blau and Fingerman say this:

"Being unmarried in and of itself, Cacioppo found, is not necessarily equated with isolation: ‘Marriage does predict loneliness. However, marriage does not ensure lower loneliness. Single people with great friends and family can be nonlonely, and estranged married couples can feel highly lonely.'"

This is a better take on the link between marital status and loneliness than the typical singlistic claim that unless you get married, you are doomed to a life of loneliness and misery. Still, I'm not quite satisfied. I emailed Cacioppo to ask him for his evidence for the link between marriage and loneliness. Tracking down his references, I found the same thing I always do when I look into the implications of getting married for health, happiness, and all the rest. Marriage is linked to loneliness in the same way that my favorite hypothetical drug Shamster is linked to better outcomes. If you look not at all the people who ever got married, but only at those who got married and currently still are married, then yes, they are often less lonely than all unmarried people taken together (divorced, widowed, and always-single). But they are not less lonely because they got married - the divorced and widowed people got married, too. Some studies even show strikingly low levels of loneliness among just those singles who stereotypically are expected to be most lonely - older women who have always been single.

Back to those people on the periphery. Do you want more of the strangers in your life to become consequential, or have you crossed the Westin off your list, too?

[To read other Living Single posts, click here. Also, there is a section on friendship and another on societal changes in my new collection, in Single with Attitude. You can order that in paperback here or here, or the Kindle version here.]

[You can find the academic version of consequential strangers in this article: Fingerman, K. L. (2009). Consequential strangers and peripheral ties: The importance of unimportant relationships. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 1, 69-86.]