Thanksgiving is a time to be with loved ones and to reflect on all the caring and support we have in our lives. But what about people who aren’t in the room but who share slices of your life and who have contributed, in great and small ways, to the fabric of your life–your consequential strangers?

The list is probably long and definitely personal: the coworker who made you look good at the sales meeting, the clergyman who listened to something you couldn’t share with others, the butcher who supplied the  turkey and patiently explained how to cook it, the guy at the newsstand who always has a smile and a kind word, the neighbor who suggested a better way to heat your house, the doctor who helped you beat cancer and the gym-goer who gave you that doctor’s name in the first place.  Some are barely more than strangers, but they all deserve your gratitude as well.

Here are four reasons (not necessarily in order of importance) to put casual relations–outsiders–on your gratitude list and mention them in your prayers of thanksgiving:

1. They allow you to expand your identity. Each relationship thrusts us into a different and unique role and is a mirror in which we can catch a different glimpse of ourselves. When a casual acquaintance laughs at your joke–one your spouse has heard scores of times–it helps you feel like a “person who’s funny.”  Interactions with a trainee assure you that you’re “smart,” while those with a  teacher transform you into “someone who perseveres.” We are less versatile, less imaginative, and less capable of change when have only close relationships. Thankfully, most of us don’t.

2. They can remind you how to treat your loved ones. One of the great paradoxes of consequential stranger relationships is that we’re sometimes nicer to near strangers and are certainly less likely to take them for granted than we are with intimates. We are excessively grateful when they do something nice or help out, because we don’t expect it.  So as you look around your Thanksgiving table this year, try to see the people close to you in a different light. Be as polite to your mother as you are to the shopkeeper you’ve known for many years. Listen as attentively to Uncle Bob as you do when you’re at lunch with a colleague. Act as appreciative of your spouse’s suggestions as you do when you secretary says, “Hey, I have an idea.”

3. They bring diversity into your life, which confers a wealth of other benefits and possibilities. Family and close friends tend to know what you know, whereas CS are from different worlds. Thank them for exposing you to new ideas and opportunities. This year, I plan to write an email of appreciation to people I recently met in Paris–now a part-time residence. Meeting them changed my view of the city and made it feel like “home.” They helped me understand the culture, told me about cultural offerings, and made me altogether savvier about living there. I’m grateful that they’ll be there when I return in the spring.

4. The wider your circle of gratitude, the better you will feel. Gratitude acts like connective glue in close relationships, or as the authors of one study put it, “ a booster shot for the relationship.” But why restrict your appreciation to intimates? Other research shows that gratitude makes work relationships better, too.  Most important, it bodes well for your health. Bottom line: expressing thanks can improve all your connections–and make you feel better in the bargain. A win-win for the holidays.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Note: This post also appears on Psychology Today. Teaser image via woodleywonderworks.
Melinda Blau


Melinda Blau

Journalist Melinda Blau is the co-author of Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don't Seem to Matter. . . But Really Do. She has been researching and reporting