Posts filed under ‘Familiar Stranger’

Americans Getting Lonelier

In 1985, the General Social Survey reported that Americans had an average of 2.94 close friends (confidants is the term researchers like to use). A recent survey from 2004 found that the number of confidants has dropped to 2.08. In other words, Americans have lost on average one friend with whom they discuss important matters. The relationships with the greatest drop in confidants were neighbors and group/club members. We are less than half as likely to have them as close friends now than in 1985. It’s really unfortunate because everyone could use more friends. The paper suggests that the nature of our social network has changed. Instead of a few strong ties, we have more weak ties.

Americans are less likely to have friends with a different education level, but more likely to have friends of a different race. Furthermore, educated Americans have larger and more diverse networks. That says something about the friends you make during your college years — I find my closest friends are from internships and college.

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006). Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades. American Sociological Review, 71, 353-375. [PDF]

April 13, 2007 at 12:45 am 21 comments

The Familiar Stranger: The Lady on the Subway

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.

October 2, 2006 at 1:15 pm 41 comments


Feeds

Read any good papers lately?

If you're interested in academic research, I'd love to have additional contributors. Shoot me an email.

Contact