Melinda Blau has been covering relationships and social trends since the seventies. In this special column for Shareable, she draws on her own social experiments as well as stories she collected from others about how to develop meaningful relationships with near-strangers.

An artist I saw recently on the nightly news had her own studio–but no one was buying. When people are worried about putting food on the table and health insurance, the artist realized, paintings aren’t usually in their budget. “But at least,”she told the reporter, “I hope that my old customers will still drop by if only to chat.”

When economics define hard times, it’s important to remind ourselves to take pleasure in the non-material reward of connecting with others. It doesn’t pay the bills, but it can help alleviate the stress. And stress, as we all know, makes us more susceptible to illnesses, which then makes a bad situation worse. Researchers put the risks associated with social isolation right up there with smoking and obesity.

In fact, when you have no job–or, for that matter, when social circumstances change for any reason (divorce, a move) – the loss of people is arguably more of a threat to your well-being than the loss of income. A man I know, whose factory had massive layoffs, told me that what he missed about work most was the social contact. In the lunchroom, he’d talk with his buddies about the news, his hobbies, and have the kinds of conversations he’d never have at home. “I could say anything to the guys, and they’d understand.”

We all need the kind of social stimulation that comes from coworkers and other types of consequential strangers. Especially when we’re in a tough transition, the people closest to us are often as shell-shocked and worried as we are. They also think the way we think and have many of the same influences. In contrast, through everyday exchanges with people who cross our paths during our routine comings and goings, we are exposed to new ideas and experiences that can lead to opportunities or a better understanding. Take the artist. Maybe one of her patrons will have a great creative suggestion or a connection that might lead to another source of income. And when she mentions that her boiler keeps breaking down, another might know of a good plumber who might be willing to barter.

And it’s not just about opportunity. To insulate ourselves, to escape every now and then, we also have to do something that brings us pleasure and makes us smile–ideally, something done with someone else: A game of gin rummy with a neighbor, a schmoozing session with other mothers at the park, an online chat with the guy who sat behind you in English class in high school. A little novelty here, bursts of spontaneous laughter there–in each case, moments of connection that make the day go better.

How do you do it? Everyone’s life is different, but here are some rules of thumb:

  • Review your new daily routine–and take a second look at the people you encounter. You’ve“lost” all the consequential strangers you encountered on your commute and at your place of business. Ask yourself, who can I connect with now? Maybe you linger longer at the dog park or have more time to interact with neighbors. Are there any people with whom you have a“nodding acquaintance” who might be worth getting to know?
  • Frequent a “being space.” A favorite coffee shop or tavern, a bowling alley, a barber shop, the town square if you’re lucky enough to live in a place that has one–any one of these can be a being space, a warm, safe, welcoming environment where strangers often become consequential strangers. It’s not enough just to go there, though. Engage!
  • Push yourself–it’s good “medicine.” If you’re shy–or depressed–take baby steps. Introduce yourself to the waitress, bartender, the guy or gal behind the counter, or a fellow patron. Make small talk: You see someone wearing a baseball cap with your favorite team’s logo: “Hey, I’m a Mets fan, too.” Or maybe a gadget catches your eye: “I’ve been thinking of getting a Kindle. How do you like it?”
  • Let people know what you need. Sociologists and marketing experts have found that people share information and ideas mostly because of “felt need.” People who knew of openings in their company were more likely to talk about it when they knew that someone was in the market for a job. Similarly, when it comes to recommending products or services, acquaintances tend to suggest an accountant at tax time or a travel website when they know you’re planning a trip.
  • Use technology. Pick up the phone and renew old acquaintances. Go online and forge new connections around areas of interest or common causes that you haven’t yet pursued because you never had the time. Ideally, some of those tech-instigated conversations will develop into off line relationships. At the very least, they might become great sources of inspiration and entertainment–and can help you feel less alone.

This post was published simultaneously on Shareable, Psychology Today, and Blau's Consequential Strangers blog.

Teaser image credit: Aidan Jones

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