milgramI am a big fan of Stanley Milgram’s work, and in Quirkology described his wonderful studies into social networking and letter dropping. One of his lesser-known projects examined the ‘familiar stranger phenomenon’. Familiar strangers are people that you see most days of your life, but never interact with: people that you might have seen for years at the train station, whilst out walking your dog, or at the gym, but have never even said hello to. Do you have familiar strangers in your life?

In an innovative study, Milgram took photographs of people on train platforms during rush hour, and then asked commuters to look at the photographs and circle the people that they saw almost everyday of their lives but had never spoken to. The typical commuter in New York City knew about four familiar strangers.

Milgram became fascinated by this strange phenomenon, referring to them as a “special kind of frozen relationship”, and noting:

“We spoke to people in station after station, and this is what they told us. As the years go by, familiar strangers become harder to talk to. The barrier hardens. If we were to meet one of these strangers far from the station, say, when we were abroad, we would stop, shake hands, and acknowledge for the first time that we know each other. But not here.”

Modern-day urban lives are full of familiar strangers. Who are the familiar strangers in your life? Research shows that familiar strangers start chatting when they meet outside of their usual context, or when they are faced with some kind of emergency. But perhaps there are other ways to help break down the barriers and so create a more connected society. Any ideas?


  1. I now say hi to familiar faces when walking to work, but I have never stopped to have a conversation, time won’t permit. It’s interesting as I had seen an elderly couple who always walked their dog at the same time every morning, in the same park, and each day I would walk past. I just smiled at first, with not much of a response, and I recall thinking that people just don’t greet anymore. The next day, intent on not even bothering with a smile, I walked past, and they said ‘Good Morning’, I admit I was surprised. All that week walking to work, the Good Mornings came from various sources. Most people can be very insular, myself included, but it makes for a lonely life.

  2. My life is the opposite way around. I’m a poker nut, play 6 nights a week at various locations and various leagues. We all talk at the table, whether it be about the cards or the whether and it’s usually friendly chatter whether it be about the former or the latter. Naturally we’re also having drinks together and often have laughs, going to the extent of making fun of others at times and then when we leave the poker rooms everyone is a stranger. I know very few names as no one introduces themselves, we just sit down and start the game. I’ve seen a couple people in other locations, the shopping markets nearby etc and we’ve both pretended not to see the other even though we’ve shared hours sitting at one table, talking and possibly laughing together.

    Before my poker addiction though, it was the opposite way around, the more common way.

  3. Isn’t the most important social barrier to break down the geographical one? I don’t see why we SHOULD talk to someone, just because we happen to use the same bus stop. I bet there’s someone over in Finland who I would love to chat with, rather than some dude who happens to be waiting for the same bus.

    Seems like that would be creating an artificially limited community.

  4. There’s one man on my bus who always gets on and off at the same stop and has done for years. Yet I have never spoken to him.

  5. I find there is a special nod and look familiar strangers do. Kind of the acknowledge, yes, I know you have this same routine.

    The best way to break the barrier is to wear T-Shirts that have written on them “I wouldn’t mind if you started talking to me. I’ve noticed you too”, although not a good idea to wear them at a bar if you are not looking for a date.

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  7. The problem is out of their usual environment familiar strangers just don’t seem to stand out so much to me, Yeah a couple of people have pointed out my shear oblivious nature!

    Maybe people stay familiar strangers because crossing the line into conversation is like making a commitment, one that requires you to give more than a nod and smile. I’m guessing that most of us like to think that we impact on people we talk to. So what happens if we don’t impact or they don’t impact on us? Future encounters then flip the brain into ‘o no please don’t talk to me I can’t even remember if you told me your name’ mode. Worse still is if you do remember you speak and see their brain is in ‘o no please don’t talk to me I can’t even remember if you told me your name’ mode.

    I wonder has someone somewhere studied familiar strangers and total strangers seat choices on public transport? There seems to be some subconscious seating plan if the bus was half full would you be drawn to a familiar or total stranger?

  8. I can relate to this. Every day for 4 years a woman walks by my house and I noticed her, but never did I talk to her until I met her as the desk manager at the local emergency room!

  9. I have actually discussed this very thing with a close coworker of mine. We came to the conclusion that “small talk” is exhausting. I personally, am tired of the same ol’ “Can you believe the weather?-how about the economy?-look at the gas prices!” talk.

    Don’t get me wrong, I would like to just crack a joke to the person next to me in line and strike a meaningful conversation with a new face, but the general population doesn’t seem receptive to that.

    When you say hello, you will have to do so everytime from that point on….or it will just be awkward. Been there…Done that.


  10. As a high school student, I can say that I probably know dozens of familiar strangers. I see them as I walk the halls every single say.

  11. I think Wobl has a good point – and probably an example of the “familiar strangers” effect that most of us have encountered. You can go to school (or work) with someone every day for a year and never speak to them, but if you bump into that person on a beach in Honolulu, you can end up the best of friends…

    An interesting question is how likely the beach-in-Honolulu friendship is to continue when you get back to the office. In my experience the answer is “quite likely, but by no means certain”. I’ve certainly gone back to “nodding” terms with people who I’ve been reasonably good friends with outside of the usual environment.

  12. I’d rather call him part of my life, if I not see him one day I will be a stranger in my attitude. I see him every morning walking in our empty street both of his pocket is full of bread and nuts. When the pigeons and other bird see him they will fly behind him while he through the stuff. And I walk quietly behind him, so the street is empty except me, him and the birds. He is around, now 75 years old.

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