Familiar Strangers

Speaking to a friend, chef and creator of Lovejoy Food, about her first day back at the OHSU farmers market, I asked her how her day went, given the tremendous downpour we’d had. “Were there a lot of people you recognized from last year?” I asked her. There were, and she said it was a bit surreal, seeing all these familiar strangers.

The term was coined by Stanley Milgram in the 1972 paper The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity. He is also credited with developing the concept of six degrees of separation.

The true definition of a familiar stranger is someone who is seen regularly (like a person on your morning bus commute) and one with whom you don’t interact. Intel did a study using mobile devices to connect strangers, not necessarily to be friends but, to explore how strangers interact. The concept of familiar strangers is that they are an important link that bridges the gap between friends/family and total strangers. They play an essential role in fixing us in a community and providing us context. We wouldn’t want everyone to be a friend, and nor could we tolerate only strangers and people we know. The familiar strangers act as a buffer.

In my friend’s case, her customers aren’t true familiar strangers. But one friend has been creative with her daily commute (fodder for another post—ways to make the mundane more interesting) by documenting via her iPhone, her fellow commuters’ tattoos, pets, fashion statements and books. She has a non-judgemental, endearing way about her daily documentary. There’s a richness about it because she’s bringing strangers to life and making us look at these people closely, whom none of us know!

An interesting aspect of familiar strangers is that we have an unspoken agreement to not communicate. But we are much more likely to interact if we find ourselves in an unfamiliar setting, like bumping into the person you see each week at the farmers market while on vacation in Rome.

Has this happened to you? Did you introduce yourself? How long should a familiar stranger remain a stranger? Do you ever want to acknowledge your shared presence, especially if your lives seem to overlap in more than a couple places?

In a city as small as Portland, there are people you see over and over in more than one place you frequent, even if there doesn’t seem to be a significant connection among the locations. Maybe this person should be part of your social or business circle.

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