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KNOW THYSELF

A Harvard sociologist explains why we confide in strangers

Jenny Anderson
By Jenny Anderson

Senior reporter, Editor of How to be Human

From our Obsession

Being Human

We’ve never been as connected, or as isolated.

Who would you trust with your most personal information—a problem at work, an affair, a health scare? Would you go to your partner? Your best friend? Your mother?

Now a different question: Who did you last trust with some really personal information? 

Mario Luis Small, a Harvard sociologist and author of the 2017 book Someone to Talk To, found in his research that the answers to these questions often didn’t match. People consistently said they would trust those in their inner sanctum, but when asked whom they had last shared concerns with, it was often a random person on a plane, their hairdresser, or a stranger in a waiting room.

“It’s been common sense for so long” that we turn to those closest to us, Small says. “But we turn to acquaintances all the time.” 

Adam Smith, writing in 1790, said we can only expect real sympathy from real friends, not from mere acquaintances. More recently, in 1973, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter established as a bedrock of social network analysis the idea that we rely on “strong” ties (our inner circle) for support and weak ties (our acquaintances) for information.

Small’s research flips all of that on its head.

“People’s true pool of confidants is everyone they run into,” Small writes in his book. 

Small’s research suggests that nearly half the people with whom we discuss important matters are not those we would identify as our closest confidants. He believes we rely on those strong ties, but argues that’s not the whole picture. We also can get a lot of support from weak ties—colleagues, casual friends—and we often do.  

His findings suggest while we are smart to invest in those close to us, we also have to make an effort to put ourselves in the crosshairs lots of people. Rising loneliness, often attached to too much social media and higher rates of living alone, may also be the result of being on a train or in a line at a store and looking at our phones instead of the person next to us. The freedom to work from home is great—more than 8 million people just in the US regularly worked at home as of 2017—but one of the tradeoffs is missing out on casual interactions and the occasional substantive connection. As Small once told Psychology Today.“I think the people who are really in trouble are not the people who can’t name their three or four safety net people—they’re the people who are literally not running into anybody on a regular basis.”

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote a book about the characteristics of different kinds of drinking establishments and found that more informal settings, like beer gardens with long, shared tables, promoted more interaction than fancy cocktail bars with small tables. In Denmark, a group called Ventilen (“friend to one”) provides space for young adults to gather regularly and make a meal or play games, recognizing that it is not just being together but also having something to do that promotes interaction.

Other research by psychologists has shown that even short conversations with baristas at Starbucks improved people’s moods and increased their sense of belonging.

Sorry mom

Small says there are three reasons we might avoid those closest to us when we are grappling with problems about our health, relationships, work, or kids.

The first is that our closest relationships are our most complex ones. A spouse is a friend, often a co-parent, also a lover, and hopefully, an advocate of our work. A mother has your entire life’s history in her head. When we need comfort, we’re unsure which of their roles these people might play—and wary that it might be a role that gives us something other than the unconditional support we’re looking for in the moment. So we confide in someone else altogether.

Small cites a common conversation from his research. When he asks a subject who she is closest to, she might say her mother; but when he asks if she has talked to her mother about the problems she is having with her boyfriend, she says no way. “The mother would enact the wrong role,” he explains. “The daughter would want the listener but she would get the protector.” To avoid that, she avoids her. 

The second reason is that when we are dealing with something difficult, we commonly prefer to confide in people who have been through what we are going through rather than those who know us, seeking “cognitive empathy” over guaranteed warmth or closeness. Small says when his father died on the same day his daughter was born, he wanted to talk to people who had been through a similar experience, who were not necessarily the people closest to him. 

The third reason is that in our moment of vulnerability, our need to talk is greater than our need to self-protect. We simply grab what, or who, is near to us and don’t think much about it. “The rational model of human behavior is one in which you pause and think before you act, but the truth is, a lot of the time we don’t,” Small says. In other words, he says, the idea that humans are built for caution, and with a constant, steely will to self-protect, is wrong.

In an age of saturated social media and polarization, it’s a useful reminder that connecting with people—all kinds of people—is just something humans need to do.

Work

Small’s work also has implications for how we think about work. For many, it is the only place, outside of family, where we regularly encounter people who share common goals and give us space to vent, to opine, to brag to about our kid’s incredible goal in Saturday’s semi-final, or to confide in about your mother’s dementia or your partner’s cancer diagnosis.

While only some of us may find best friends at work, most at least find colleagues. Both matter: soul mate or lunch partner, there’s value in talking about important things and nothing at all.

Small once conducted a nationally representative online study of roughly 2,000 US adults asking who were the most important people in their lives. One in eight named a co-worker. “The water cooler chat became ubiquitous in the workplace because talk, as water, sustains life,” he writes in an article about the research.

Matthew Breshears, an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina, says there is ample evidence that weak ties are important but that Small’s work is notable for recognizing that strong ties, while important, do not capture the full picture of who we confide in.

“Mario is telling a very nuanced story where you have strong ties, but because of some cognitive features, it’s difficult to use them for certain purposes.”  The work speaks to “how social relationships are developed and maintained that we have not properly plumbed at this point.”

Small has just completed a draft of another study, one which has not been reviewed so should be treated cautiously. The research is based on a nationally representative survey of 1,200 Americans, which asked how likely they were to talk about a personally sensitive subject with a close friend, spouse, or parent. Nearly everyone said “very likely.” Then he asked about the last time they had a health, or relationship, or work issue. Did they turn to these people? One third said they did. Another third said they actively avoided them.

“You are about as likely to deliberately avoid the people you are close to as you are to actually talk to them when you need somebody to talk to,” Small says. 

Which is ok, because there’s a world of strangers out there. We just need to remember to access them.

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