The Familiar Stranger: The Lady on the Subway

October 2, 2006 at 1:15 pm 42 comments

Urban living brings about an interesting phenomenon, one which Milgram calls the Familiar Stranger.

The Familiar Stranger is a person you see during your daily activities, but don’t interact with: the gentleman at the bus stop, the babysitter at the park, or the lady on the subway.

But consider for a moment you saw the lady on the subway while traveling to Paris. Can you imagine, it’s likely you would practically become best friends in a day!

To be a familiar stranger, a person has to be

  1. observed
  2. repeatedly for a certain time period
  3. without any interaction

Milgram notes,

But it’s a real relationship, in which both parties have agreed to mutually ignore each other, without any implication of hostility.

Students from a university in New York went to the commuter stations and interviewed commuters. They found that on average, commuters knew 4 familiar strangers but had only talked to 1.5 individuals.

Commuters said they have a fantasy relationship with familiar strangers, trying to figure out what kind of lives they lead, what their jobs are, etc.

This phenomenon is explained as a response to the overload of inputs from the environment — perceptual processing takes considerably less time than social processing.

However, I think when you see someone you barely recognize from school a few years later at a department store, it feels like you’re friends because you know each other relatively better than everyone else there.

Berkeley is doing a study called the Familiar Stranger Project, which is worth taking a look at.

Milgram, S. (1972). The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity. Division 8 Newsletter.


Entry filed under: Anonymity, Familiar Stranger, Relationships, Sociology, Urban.

Drinking patterns, social interaction, and barroom behavior Pop vs Soda vs… Coke?

42 Comments Add your own

  • 1. red  |  October 2, 2006 at 4:58 pm

    Yeah, just saw a Seinfeld rerun last week, where Elaine was experiencing a similar “relationship” which, of course, goes bad.

  • 2. Anne  |  October 2, 2006 at 7:30 pm

    Interesting. I do see the same people repeatedly on the train and “familiar stranger” describes them perfectly. I have no idea who they are but feel as though I know them because I see them often enough to know their taste in reading material.

  • 3. the*point*man  |  October 2, 2006 at 7:59 pm

    I love this post — it’ s a common phenomenom especially to travelers that do the same commute (train or plane) every week — day in and day out. I’ve had the case where I see someone on the train to the airport, see them at the check-in counter, then see they are boarding the same place as I am.

    But if it happens once you do nothing – happens a few times and you feel like you can just talk to the person.

    Perhaps that is where the cliche, “Do I know you from somewhere?” comes from….

  • 4. zwemple  |  October 2, 2006 at 8:23 pm

    So completely true. I’m an Urban Dweller as well (downtown Cleveland). I walk over a long bridge every morning for work … and every morning I see the same homeless man in a wheelchair coming from the opposite direction. Every single morning, and yet there’s been no actual interaction … not even once. Just a mutual ignorance of each other.

    I do often find myself coming up with background stories of who he is, how he got where he is, where he goes every morning.

  • 5. sava  |  October 2, 2006 at 10:32 pm

    I almost find the idea of the familiar stranger comforting in the urban setting. Comfort is found in familiarity. In the urban setting, seeing the same people in shops you pass on your morning walk to the train is pleasant.
    In the suburban setting where people are seperated by parking lots and unused yards, seeing a person everyday and never speaking with them is unnerving.
    Urban people understand the difference between respect of privicy and unrational fear of interaction.
    I miss the city…

  • 6. LearningNerd  |  October 3, 2006 at 12:05 am

    Interesting post! I’ve noticed this, too. Maybe one day I’ll be able to talk to the familiar strangers I get to know. :)

  • 7. hatrabbit  |  October 3, 2006 at 12:11 am

    Wow, so great that someone put a name to that. I’ve always enjoyed playing the guessing game with familiar faces on the train on my morning commute. I’m always drawing and I’ve filled sketchbooks with drawings of people waiting for the train, or sleeping on the train too. Mostly people I’d never actually strike up a conversation with or ever try to really get to know.

  • 8. Secret Project  |  October 3, 2006 at 2:47 am

    I travel on the London Tube on a daily basis and am searching for my familiar strangers.
    The London Tube is SO impersonal that it would be really lovely to see at least 1 or 2 familiar faces a day.

    xx SP xx

  • 9. elevate  |  October 3, 2006 at 4:54 am

    I agree with sava’s first paragraph, from commuting on the bus each day I have a few familiar strangers that I have never spoken to but it is conforting to see them each day, and I wouldn’t hesitate to give them a hand with anything.
    Great post!

  • 10. Laurent  |  October 3, 2006 at 9:42 am

    You should try SubMate, it’s exactly on the point of “Social Commuting”.
    I believe that amongst all those strangers (already familiar or not) might be people we could really hook up with. There is this part of imagination (what do they do ? where do they go ? who are they with ? what are they reading ?) and i am sure sometimes you just sit next to your next good friend, or your saturday-evening-lower-east-side-concert-mate, or your future colleague, ….
    Anyway, very nice post !

  • 11. Kay  |  October 3, 2006 at 10:13 am

    As a New Yorker, I see the same people all the time on the train. I sometimes give them nicknames based on a couple of salient characteristics (e.g., Elvis Sniffles and Music Nazi) but I don’t spend even one second thinking about who they are.

    (I recently discovered your website and I think it’s very interesting. However, these articles are out of context. It may not be obvious to the casual reader, but I recently did a research paper on bullying, so I know that the issue isn’t as simple as the one paper below presented it.)

  • 12. eleanor  |  October 3, 2006 at 11:22 am

    “agreeing to mutually ignore” is a very interesting concept that I’d never really considered before!

    There’s always the chance that actually talking to these people would be a disappointment, because of everything you’ve built them up to be in your mind.

    My familiar strangers are always seen on the train platform first thing in the morning when I’m half asleep – contributing greatly to the lack of communication i’m sure!

  • 13. dinanath  |  October 3, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    Very true. This oxymoronic phrase, familiar stranger, never struck me, though. I commute to office daily from a bus stop and “meet” atleast five other familar strangers, either on way to the bus stop or at the bus stop. And yes, only the other day when i crossed two of them in a restaurant we exchanged smiles, for the first time in five months!

  • 14. iddy  |  October 3, 2006 at 7:50 pm

    I’ll try to converse with familiar strangers on my way home today. Nice post. :)

  • 15. Anita Marie  |  October 3, 2006 at 8:15 pm

    I ride the bus to work with a group of people who don’t like to share a seat.

    They do this thing where they’ll pile their backpacks and briefcases and…if need be a dead animal to keep you from sitting next to them.

    The only fantasy I have about most them involves super glue on their seats.


  • 16. tpsky  |  October 3, 2006 at 8:49 pm

    “true relationship”? I find it sad that we take it as a norm that people just pass by each other day after day like passing inanimate objects.

  • 17. julieluongo  |  October 3, 2006 at 11:24 pm

    I find that most people abhor this familiar stranger and harbor ill will. (See above: The territorial claim staker vs. the glue-on-the-seat fantasizer.) The familiar strangers are enemies because we are forced to share our space with them, and we hate to share! That is, until we have a real common enemy … think 911, when familiar strangers everywhere fell in love. Very sad, indeed.

  • 18. Secret Project  |  October 3, 2006 at 11:49 pm

    I wonder how many of us that cross comment on various blogs would get on in real life…
    I’d like to think some of us would be friends…
    And with that, I think I’ll start my day – quite warmly.

    xx SP xx

  • 19. noescape  |  October 4, 2006 at 1:10 am

    “The more familiar strangers get the less hostility there will be all around”
    Do you have more of such lovely combo phrases?

  • 20. Okro  |  October 4, 2006 at 2:23 am

    “But it’s a real relationship, in which both parties have agreed to mutually ignore each other, without any implication of hostility.”

    -How interesting is that? That really gets the gears going as to how the mind and body works on a sub level. Without saying a word, both people have already agreed to some sort of “friendship”. We truly are amazing creatures.


  • 21. slatch  |  October 4, 2006 at 3:15 am

    Yes, I agreed with you. I use the perfect term “familiar stranger”. I congratulate you to choose such a nice topic, based on facts.

  • 22. fleas7  |  October 4, 2006 at 7:25 am

    Nice observation, being a rural dweller I tend to blow it though with a warm hearted smile which is all to often met with a rather worried look away, although sometimes a smile doesn’t always go amiss.

  • 23. lazybros  |  October 4, 2006 at 11:48 am

    This is surely one tasty reaserch!

    “But it’s a real relationship, in which both parties have agreed to mutually ignore each other, without any implication of hostility.”


  • 24. Secret Project  |  October 4, 2006 at 2:40 pm

    -Flea –

    You, me both. I was traveling on the London Tube today and was intrigued by a book that a chap was flicking thru. He was Nigerian, the book was a compact – but thick – series of black and white sketches and as he read thru it, he did so right to left, as one would in Japan.
    Forgetting the required London (British?) reserve, I asked him what it was and received an initially cold but then impassioned education on ‘Manga’ (sp?)
    Well worth both our initial embarrassment ;)

    xx SP xx

  • 25. Novelist  |  October 13, 2006 at 10:15 am

    Ah ha! My stories almost always involve characters who are “familiar strangers” to my protagonist. The protag’s previous perception of them can be used to contrast/conflict with the stranger’s true nature as the story develops.

    But tell me: is it more interesting to leave the stranger’s thoughts a mystery to the reader, and reveal the stranger’s true nature only by her actions/words,
    to eventually switch to the stranger’s POV and hear her actual thoughts?

  • 26. David  |  January 31, 2007 at 6:21 pm

    Came across this site……great idea

  • 27. Geoff Dodd  |  February 26, 2007 at 6:11 am

    Yes, I guess there is reciprocity in the relationship. Agreement not to talk. To meet. It’s sad that bus stops generate these relationships and even ATMs have ‘so much personal space’ required as you wait there….

  • 28. sharyar  |  March 18, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    it is interesting

  • 29. Alex Mehran  |  April 29, 2009 at 2:22 am

    If some one is not a total stranger to you then he/she must have a relation with you. A friendly relation or an enemy of yours. No matter how long you havent met, your meeting will sure refresh your memories. So try to be such a person that every one remembers you as a good fellow.

  • 30. Monique  |  June 13, 2009 at 6:48 am

    Very interesting post. Familiar stranger are those I experience daily :-)

  • 31. James  |  May 8, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    I haven’t realized it until I read this article. Man there’s always this guy on the bench that I seem to pass by that almost everyday. I didn’t intend to ignore him. I just walked passed him without realizing that I had ignored him. I don’t know. Now that I think about it, there are a bundle of people like that near my hometown that I “ignore”

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