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At the end of the day, it's conversation that makes strangers less strange, and it takes a willingness and/or desire to start one with someone unfamiliar (face to face or online) that makes some strangers consequential. Strangers become acquaintances and acquaintances become friends. And of course, coffeehouses are known to be conversation friendly.

Joe McCarthy

Coffeeshopchat: thanks for adding to the conversation! Your point about familiarity - and unfamiliarity - is well taken. One of the key components of the implicit social contract between familiar strangers is to refrain from any conversation. We may maintain a nodding acquaintanecship with some of the people we regularly see in the places we regularly go - for example, commuter train or bus stops, workplace cafeterias, and I would include coffeehouses - but the sheer magnitude of people we encounter daily in densely populated urban areas often results in social overload.

Engaging in even a single meaningful conversation with any of these people may reveal personal information that one may feel obligated to remember and revisit upon subsequent encounters, e.g., "How is your [spouse|child|significant other] doing?" or "How is your [work|school|project] going?" Phatic conversations about topics like the weather are far less risky, but they are less risky precisely because they are less likely to lead to the formation of an acquaintanceship.

I agree that coffeehouses that include the appropriate conversation catalysts - such as engaging baristas, well designed spaces, communal tables, and various low-tech or high-tech "tickets to talk" - can promote the transformation of familiar strangers into consequential strangers (or acquaintances). And I hope, like I know you do (from earlier conversations), that tools such as Twitter may be helping to reduce the perceived risks of connecting with strangers, and paving the way for more conversations, online and offline.

Selena Deckelmann

Thanks for the review! I just started reading this book and am most interested in the effect on creativity regular contact with non-intimates have. One page mentioned how comfortable we get with our most intimate friends, and how some professor commented that he gets "fancy brain" when he talks or tries to solve problems with people who are experts in other disciplines. It's an argument and experiment I'd like to bring to open source projects I work with. The reason why we need more diversity (economic, gender, academic disciplines) in our development groups isn't just for diversity's sake -- having lots of different people involved makes organizations smarter and more creative.

Joe McCarthy

Selena: thanks for highlighting the importance of diversity to promoting greater creativity. I'm reminded of several of Dee Hock's Chaordic Leadership Principles, but particularly his view on hiring:

"Never hire or promote in your own image. It is foolish to replicate your strength. It is stupid to replicate your weakness. Employ, trust, and reward those whose perspective, ability and judgment are radically different from your own and recognize that it requires uncommon humility, tolerance, and wisdom."


Joe, thank you so much for highlighting these concepts. They resonate in my working life as I try to explain why people gain so much value from sharing their health experiences online -- best summarized in two reports I've written:

Social Life of Health Information (2009)

Peer-to-peer Healthcare (2011)

The ideas also resonate personally since I'm incorrigibly social and treat any street corner, bus seat, or conference hallway as an opportunity to chat with people. I recognize, however, that this sets me apart from a lot of people who are shy or who just don't gain energy from talking with other people.

Along these lines: I'm beginning to formulate a framework for what the internet can & can't do -- it can provide the opportunity for meeting consequential strangers (lead you to the coffeeshop) but it can't change your personality (can't make you do more than drink the coffee). Or can it? Is that covered in the books you cite above?

Joe McCarthy

Susannah: I found this book enormously illuminating, and I'm glad that some of the excerpts I included are interesting and useful to you.

The reports you reference are also enormously illuminating, and I highly recommend them for anyone interested in the ways that people seek out health information - through pages and/or other people - online.

At the time I wrote this post, I was more focused on coffeeshop conversations than health care, so I'm grateful for the opportunity your comment presents to go back and revisit the book.

There is a whole chapter in Consequential Strangers on "Good for What Ails Us", that focuses on the health benefits available through our weak ties. The authors cite studies by Sheldon Cohen and his colleagues, including one Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold [JAMA, 1997 Jun 25;277(24):1940-4], which showed that people with a more diverse web of relationships [spouse, parents, in-laws, children, other family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, schoolmates, fellow volunteers, members of religious groups, members of social, recreational or professional groups] were much less likely to come down with a cold than those with a narrower collection of associations.

The book also reports on a study by Lisa Berkman and Leonard Syme, Social networks, host resistance, and mortality: a nine-year follow-up study of Alameda County residents [Am J Epidemiol, 1979 Feb;109(2):186-204], which showed that "people who lacked close and community ties, including consequential strangers, were more likely to die nine years earlier than those with more extensive social connections". This is the study in which the Berkman-Syme Social Network Index (SNI) is introduced.

BTW, in searching for more information about the Berkman-Syme SNI, I came across a table describing a health survey questionnaire - from a The North Staffordshire Osteoarthritis Project – NorStOP: Prospective, 3-year study of the epidemiology and management of clinical osteoarthritis in a general population of older adults [Elaine Thomas, Ross Wilkie, George Peat, Susan Hill, Krysia Dziedzic and Peter Croft, BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2004, 5:2, doi:10.1186/1471-2474-5-2] - which covers topics such as participation and social isolation (using the Berkman-Syme SNI) along with demographic, occupational, lifestyle and anthropometric characteristics.

There are numerous other studies - and interviews by Melinda Blau (@melindablau), one of the authors - in Consequential Strangers that relate to social networks (online and offline) and health issues. Like you, Melinda is also very sociable, and although she has moved on to focus on other topics since the book was published, she may be willing to share some of the other insights that she and her author uncovered in their work. Among their observations that speak to the framework you are formulating: "What we do know for sure is that nothing works for everyone" [p. 119].

As for your question about innate vs. learned (or adopted) behaviors, I just ordered another book, Mindset, by Carol Dweck, that another friend recommended yesterday - during a meeting in a coffeeshop - while discussing this very topic, so I hope to have more to report on that theme sometime in the near future.

Melinda Blau

Joe, Thanks for giving me a heads-up via Twitter to let me know that you're still talking about Consequential Strangers--the concept and the book. Yes, I've "moved on" in a sense, because my work is as a journalist and I cover many subjects. (I don't know if you ever saw this piece,"The Audacity of Hype," but it's a short, humorous--and true--account of my realization that I'm not a publicist; I'm a writer!

That said, in my everyday life, I live the concepts in the book. I always have, which is what drew me to the subject in the first place, but now I engage with strangers more than ever, because I understand the value of doing so.

For example, I've been spending a lot of time in Paris, and on my last trip I was determined to make the city my own (it has been a hard adjustment, among other reasons because I only speak a little French). So I set out to "make" CS -- and did a great job, talking to others who walked their dogs, forging connections with people in pilates and yoga classes.

At the end of six weeks, I knew enough people to throw a party. Right before everyone came, though, I realized, "I hardly know these people!" But it was one of the best parties I've ever given, and many of my guests are now connected to one another...through me. When I return in May, I know I have my "peeps" there. In the book I wrote that a place doesn't feel like "home" until you have a group of CS (number varies according to the person)-- how true that is.

As for health issues, if Susanna would like to contact me, I have lots of thoughts and, as you pointed out, much data in the book. Indeed, the most robust body of research on CS (although they're not called that) is in the health field.

So glad that you're now one of my consequential strangers!

Joe McCarthy

Melinda: thanks for the updates, on all dimensions. I hadn't read your Audacity of Hype article before, and so enjoyed reading about it now ... and you seem to be living the concepts in that piece, too ("Authors need to publicize their books, but not forever").

I hope you continue to enjoy meeting consequential strangers in Paris, and transforming some into consequential friends (or at least consequential acquaintances).

I'll post a tweet to Susannah to let her know you're open to a conversation - modulo timezone differences - about research on the correlations and connections between consequential strangers and health outcomes.

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