The woman I catch up with on Saturdays at the dog park who has the Jack Russell terrier. The young man I chat with on the train during my morning commute. The security guard for my building who always asks about my weekend. None of them is a family member or close friend; I don’t even know all of their names. But they each are vital to my day-to-day life and well-being.
Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman call them “consequential strangers”—someone who you know something about, with whom you are actually acquainted, and who serves in a supporting role for your social network. They are not people to whom you are deeply connected, but who you would likely miss should you never see them again. They anchor us in the social landscape and give us a sense of being connected to something larger than ourselves; they enrich our lives and offer opportunities for novel experiences and conversations that are beyond what we would experience with our inner circle.
I recently published an article with Drs. Shimul Melwani and Naomi Rothman where we reviewed the research on consequential strangers. Interestingly, research finds that these acquaintances are common at work, possibly because they require little time and energy to maintain. Indeed, when asked to think about their acquaintances, nearly 50% of participants nominated their coworkers, such as leisure companions (e.g., coworkers who share lunch breaks), daily interaction partners (e.g., clients), service providers (e.g., office janitors), and past associates (e.g., a former team member). Perhaps because they appear inconsequential, disposable, or substitutable, management scholars rarely study them. Some have even questioned whether acquaintances can be considered relationships. But I strongly believe they should be, as they include interactions between people who know each other and who have continuity in contact patterns.
Consequential strangers offer significant personal and professional benefits. They can be low-risk sounding boards for creative ideas; they can be dormant, but available in an emergency; and they can reinforce compartmentalized aspects of one’s identity at work (e.g., a working mother who suppresses her “parent” identity to emphasize her “employee” identity with an arm’s-length work acquaintance). There is also evidence that networks with a balanced composition of intimate relationships and acquaintances are linked to enhanced well-being, mental health, and decreased mortality risk.
We often hear arguments for investing in our close relationships because they may become less valuable should we lose touch with someone. In fact, much of the language around relationship maintenance is about the “payoff.” But, close relationships require effort, and they are not always the most effective in every situation. Instead, in a recent article in the New York Times, Allie Volpe explains why you need a network of low-stakes, casual relationships. She offers several actionable tips for cultivating these relationships, including:
Talk to one new person a week. Setting a goal is motivating, and it helps those who are hesitant to meet new people think about a strategy for building new connections.
Shift your opinion about chatting with strangers. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the power of small talk. These conversations are deceivingly enjoyable, so try to alter your expectations and take a few minutes to chat with someone you don't know, or who you don't know well.
Mirror an expert’s behavior. Is there a family member or colleague who interacts well with everyone they encounter? Observe their behaviors and try to adopt some of their conversational habits when speaking with acquaintances. How can you initiate the exchange? What questions spark good conversations? What topics can be avoided?
Make the conversation meaningful. Even brief exchanges can be rich and high-quality. Ask questions and show genuine interest in the answers. In other words, be more interested than interesting.
So, next time you're debating whether to spark up a conversation with your favorite cashier at Whole Foods, remember that the minor time investment can generate a high quality and consequential connection. Who knows, a 10 minute conversation with a stranger could even lead to a lifelong friendship.