I woke up early to write this article. That’s remarkable for two reasons: Firstly, mornings aren’t exactly my jam, and I usually prefer not to interact with humans before 8am in any way, not even through a blogpost. Secondly, it doesn’t happen often that an academic text gives me a creative impulse so strong it could double as an espresso shot. However, times are changing and so it happened that I spent a lovely morning with Mark Granovetter and his findings about the power of strangers in our lives.
There are not even three months to go until this decade is officially over. I don’t know how has 2019 treated you so far, but for me personally this has been a year of some wild decision-making. If we counted years as units of lessons learned, 2019 would probably pass as a 3in1 package. It’s been full of juggling priorities, new beginnings and a whole whirl of emotions. While moving abroad again (apparently just to spice things up), many doors closed and so many opened. Through the constant racket of the stupid door slamming, I could hardly hear my own thoughts though.
You might or might not relate. But we’ll probably agree that it’s the times of unrest and restlessness when you turn to your circle, seeking to find comfort and hopefully some valuable insight or guidance as well. Well, I received a lot of comfort and hugs, but regarding the insight, the saying “blind leading blind” pretty much sums it up. This is not to say that my friends and family have bad vision. Quite the opposite. But I’m afraid we’re programmed a bit too similarly, we’re a bit too supportive and a bit too understanding. In his thesis The Strength of Weak Ties, Granovetter observes how in such close-knit circles, the mutual exchange gets stuck in a loop without significantly benefiting anyone involved. Why? Because we share too much.
Now I know that you don’t live in a perfectly homogeneous, sterile community of uniformed minds. However, chances are that you share a lot of experiences and possibly also contacts with your clique. Your knowledge might overlap. The intimacy you share might get in the way between you and life, not because your friends are not good to you, but because… it’s too much of a good thing.
With all the doors opening in 2019, a few strangers sneaked into my life. Some of them are keepers, some of them left early. Where did they go, I don’t know. That’s generally the problem of strangers: they’re unpredictable. They say all the wrong things, they look at you with scepticism and don’t laugh at your jokes, and they’re not very likely to hug you. Most importantly, they don’t care about your life turning upside down.
I recall a bunch of weird encounters. Earlier this year, lady at a beauty parlor told me with a clairvoyant certainty that moving to Amsterdam was a positive step. This was completely unasked for, but believe it or not, she was the first person to explicitly put so much trust in my decision, and that really touched me. User’s warning: not all strangers are sweet and empathetic though. I won’t lie to you – my encounters also felt like a punch in a stomach sometimes, but at least they made me stay awake.
According to Granovetter, the people you know only slightly can benefit you more than your own circle (where you just recycle what you already know). Granovetter says it’s because they have access to different information and resources. I’d add that this can be precisely the information you don’t want to know, or a resource you’ve been carefully avoiding for years. Listening to strangers can be painful and absurd. On the other side, it still makes more sense than looking for clearance with your eyes closed. And what is an open door for if you’re not moving anywhere?
So special thanks to all the strangers in my life. You opened a whole lot of doors for me, and I don’t know what to fucking do with all of them right now, but I guess I’ll just ask another stranger on the go.