Are Familiar Strangers Becoming an Endangered Species?

According to the paper “The Familiar Stranger: Anxiety, Comfort, and Play in Public Spaces” by Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman [1], Familiar Strangers are people we regularly encounter during our daily activities in public spaces, yet never interact with directly. They are people who wait alongside us at the bus station, do their groceries the same time as us, and eat their lunch at the same café as us. Most Familiar Strangers are tied to certain places (and perhaps times).

Familiar Strangers lie somewhere in between complete strangers and people we know. We acknowledge their existence and recognise when they are missing from their usual place and time. Yet we do not feel overly worried for we simply do not know enough about them to care, as harsh as it may sound.

Sometimes, we come up with fictional background stories for our Familiar Strangers. We extrapolate their lives further than situations in which we encounter them in. We create a whole scenario for them, plan out their whole day, position them in a family or give them a pet. Most likely they do they same with us. Most of us are someone else’s Familiar Stranger.

From the top of my head, I can think of two Familiar Strangers of mine.

First is a red-faced homeless woman who I encounter sometimes when taking the metro. She wears a lot of layers and a thick coat on top of it all. She has a shopping cart full of things. There are so many that it is overflowing. I have never dwelled around long enough to actually observe what exactly is in there. I always rush past, not stopping. I have never seen her ask for anything, never begging. Just sitting there, trying to hide from the cold and the wind, always smiling gently. I often wonder what her backstory is, but I will probably never ask. I am not even sure she speaks English and I know no Swedish.

My second Familiar Stranger is a man I encounter when coming home in the evenings. He works at a university building on campus and his office windows face the path I take. He is rarely there before 15 o’clock, but tends to work late instead. He seems to enjoy his standing desk. Sometimes, I am concerned about him working late. Has he had dinner yet? Does he have a deadline coming up? What about spending time with his family? I enjoy thinking about him having another job during the daytime. On the other hand, I also hope that he simply enjoys his sleep and personal time in the mornings and prefers to work in the evenings.

As you can see, all of us have our own Familiar Strangers, people we observe in public, but never greet, never talk to. They make us feel safe and secure, give us an anchor point when going about our daily lives.

One thing I am concerned about, though, especially here in Stockholm, is whether Familiar Strangers are slowly going extinct. There seems to be an epidemic going around in Stockholm and most people in public spaces are affected. This fast-spreading disease is a simple one and it is called a smartphone.

When walking around the streets of Stockholm, one will soon notice that nearly everyone is glued to their phones. People are poking their phones when sitting on a subway tram. They are texting when walking in and out of the subway, skilfully avoiding street lamps and signs. They are going through their virtual grocery lists when at the supermarket. They are browsing through cat videos while waiting for the bus. They are simply always on their phones and they rarely even look up.

It is difficult to find Familiar Strangers when one does not look around themselves. Familiar Strangers get created by noticing the same people at the same place over and over again. If one pays no attention to one’s surroundings, obviously that cannot happen. I am afraid that at least in Sweden Familiar Strangers are becoming an endangered species. The Swedish people have never been famous for their extraversion and openness. Quite the contrary, there are anecdotes about Swedes waiting for a bus with 2 metres of personal space between each person and the line twisting around the corner. However, now they are also glued to their phones, paying no attention to the strangers around them.

The important question is, do we even need Familiar Strangers anymore?

[ 1 ] E. Paulos and E. Goodman, “The Familiar Stranger: Anxiety, Comfort, and Play in Public Spaces,” Proceedings of the 2004 conference on Human factors in computing systems – CHI 04, 2004.

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