I 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?