Pick Me!

A weblog by Laura Moncur


The Familiar Stranger

Filed under: The Confessional — Laura Moncur @ 5:00 am

The Familiar Stranger is a person who you see on a regular basis, but choose to ignore. He is the walking guy with the cowboy hat and the trench coat in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />West Jordan. He is the homeless guy on the corner of I-80 and 700 East. She is the girl at the gym who exercises every day at lunch time on the elliptical trainer. She is the person who drives the neon green car in the opposite direction every day. You never talk to them, yet you recognize them every day. You miss them if they aren’t there.

I had never heard the phrase before May of this year, when Boing Boing directed me to this article at The Feature. I now know that the paper describing this strange relationship has existed since 1972, but I’m so behind on reading obscure research papers from psychologists that I don’t think I would have ever gotten to that one on my own.

Stanley Milgram was the same psychologist that brought forth the idea of Six Degrees of Separation. His idea of The Familiar Stranger is also concerned with knowing people, but these are people that you choose to ignore. Berkley is doing more research on this idea.

Ever since I heard about this concept a couple of months ago, I have been thinking about it. I thought maybe that it might explain the confession problem that I have. Maybe, I thought to myself, I’m talking to familiar strangers, breaking the “ignore me” rule. Maybe that misstep of unspoken etiquette is the explanation for varied and personal confessions I receive on a regular basis. Maybe I notice the familiar strangers in my life a little more than other people do and I end up inviting them into my life by talking to them instead of ignoring them like I’m “supposed” to.

Since my discovery of this concept, a movie is in the works. Some slasher movie, I guess. Sure, the familiar stranger could be malignant, but the idea of the familiar stranger being your savior is more intriguing to me. Why don’t they write a movie about someone who is on the subway every day and sees the same people every day and the train gets stuck or maybe it’s an elevator to a huge building like the World Trade Center that houses many different businesses? These people who see each other every day really get to know each other and eventually fight to stay alive together, creating a bond. I’d rather watch that, but it’s so hard to convey the idea of a person who you see every day, but choose to ignore. How do you do that on film?

This whole concept has me thinking about all of those people that I see every day and ignore. Would I live a fuller life if I talked to them? Would I just be inviting more strange and heartbreaking confessions? Should I ignore them? Should I avert my eyes? Am I overstepping some invisible line every day, causing discomfort in others? Should I just stay in the house and avoid human contact at all costs? Should I get a BlueTooth phone so that I can see how many of my familiar strangers are nearby? Should I purposely go to different places in the city to avoid these people? Do people on the Internet count? If I read someone’s blog, but never comment, are they a familiar stranger? What about the people who lurk on my blog? How does whuffie fit in to all of this? This whole idea has my head spinning and I don’t know how I think about it all.


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