The Familiar Stranger: The Lady on the Subway
Urban living brings about an interesting phenomenon, one which Milgram calls the Familiar Stranger.
The Familiar Stranger is a person you see during your daily activities, but don’t interact with: the gentleman at the bus stop, the babysitter at the park, or the lady on the subway.
But consider for a moment you saw the lady on the subway while traveling to Paris. Can you imagine, it’s likely you would practically become best friends in a day!
To be a familiar stranger, a person has to be
- repeatedly for a certain time period
- without any interaction
But it’s a real relationship, in which both parties have agreed to mutually ignore each other, without any implication of hostility.
Students from a university in New York went to the commuter stations and interviewed commuters. They found that on average, commuters knew 4 familiar strangers but had only talked to 1.5 individuals.
Commuters said they have a fantasy relationship with familiar strangers, trying to figure out what kind of lives they lead, what their jobs are, etc.
This phenomenon is explained as a response to the overload of inputs from the environment — perceptual processing takes considerably less time than social processing.
However, I think when you see someone you barely recognize from school a few years later at a department store, it feels like you’re friends because you know each other relatively better than everyone else there.
Berkeley is doing a study called the Familiar Stranger Project, which is worth taking a look at.
Milgram, S. (1972). The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity. Division 8 Newsletter.