The Paradox of Confiding in (Near) Strangers

New research says we engage in intimate conversations with strangers more than we think.

Source: iStock/CHBD

Who do you talk to about important matters? Most of us answer that question with a short list of names along these lines: a parent, a sibling, a significant other, and/or a few close friends. These are the people we trust, share intimate details with, and rely on, and they’re essential for our social support. Or so we and social scientists have always thought. New research from Harvard sociologist Mario Luis Small reveals that, while that small group, known as a core discussion network, is important, we routinely confide in people we don’t know very well. Small thinks this under-appreciated fact might tell us something important about human nature and about the kinds of connections we need to combat loneliness.

“People’s true pool of confidants is everyone they run into,” Small writes in his just-published book, Someone to Talk To (Oxford University Press). It describes an in-depth case study of 38 graduate students over the first year of their graduate programs, a time in life Small chose expressly because it is full of change and challenge. Small and his team dug into the details of the students’ concerns and conversations about finances, career prospects, family life and the like. He contends that such a small-scale intimate approach reveals truths about people’s lives that a big data approach will miss. But he backed up his findings with a national survey of more than 2000 adults eighteen and over and reviewed other studies as well. The large-scale findings aligned with the smaller study, showing that slightly more than half the time, people confide in people they didn’t know well. I recently asked Small about the significance of how we decide who to talk to.

What inspired you to look at this question?

It was roundabout. I was interested in neighborhood institutions and studying networks of mothers who enroll their children in child care centers. I asked them who would you trust with your kid. Everybody said some version of, “I only trust my mother or my sister, basically I don’t leave him with anybody.” But then [I discovered] that one woman left her child with a mother whose name she couldn’t remember. I started probing and found that a lot of people seemed really willing to trust their kids to people they didn’t know that well. The surprise was that trust was so prevalent even in circumstances where you would think it would be rare.

How does that finding relate to core discussion networks?

There is an idea in social network analysis that weak ties [people we aren’t that close to] are good for new information and strong ties are good for support. And vice versa. Strong ties are not very good for new information, and weak ties are terrible places to try to get social support because they’re not trustworthy enough. I think that’s wrong.

How did you test it?

First, I ran an exploratory survey. I asked half the people who they think they talk to. And then, the other half, I tried to get at what they actually did. I found that they often confided even deeply personal things in people they weren’t that close to. I decided to do a bigger study and write a book about it. 

Bumping into neighbors allows connections.

Source: iStock/ebstock

Why do you think people confide in acquaintances and strangers?

I found three things. Part of it was they were explicitly avoiding the people they were close to. Maybe the guy who has cancer doesn’t want to tell his wife because he doesn’t want to worry her. Or you don’t want to tell your mother you’re broke because she’s broke too, and she’ll try to send you a check.  The second reason was that they were looking for people they had reason to believe could empathize with their situation. Sometimes that’s a doctor or a therapist, but sometimes a relative stranger. People favored empathy more than they feared being hurt—like the guy who’s sitting at the lobby at the day care waiting for his kids and sees the other guy has a tan line on his ring finger and is also getting divorced. Next thing you know, they’re venting. And the third reason is sometimes they just didn’t think about it. They literally just talked to the person because they were there.

But no one thinks this is what they’re doing?

Exactly. I think we have a wrong understanding about ourselves as highly rational and distrustful people. The truth is we’re less self-protective than we think we are.

It sounds like you found that sharing matters, but with whom matters less. Doesn’t it make a difference how interested the listener is?

There’s a ton of evidence that mere expression—literally just talking—makes a difference. In practice, there are going to be very few things that we’re willing to tell friends that we won’t have told at least one other person.  You tell me that you enjoy dinner with your friend because you know she wants to listen to you, but maybe it’s not the person, it’s the context. Dinner is a situation in which she is going to be able to provide sympathy. I wonder what would happen if instead of thinking of our friends in terms of what they’re willing to listen to, we think about situations as functions of whether they make listening likely.

This explains why we talk to our seatmates on airplanes.

Yes. We respond to context at least as much as we think rationally about who we ought to be turning to.

What do these findings suggest about the need for social connection?

The network metaphor evokes a safety net. If you’re in trouble and you fall, the safety net, which is your small circle of confidants, is going to catch you. I don’t think network theory is wrong, I just think it’s missing something. A steady stream of social interaction is as important. 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. 

Copyright: Lydia Denworth, 2017.

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