Sam Radford

April 29, 2022

Why we need to keep meeting strangers

At the start of the year, I added ‘More quality time with friends’ to my More and Less list. I then reflected on friendship some more after reading ’Friends‘ by Robin Dunbar. 

As someone who is now into my forties, I am acutely aware that making new friends tends to be something that happens less and less. Not only that, even maintaining friendships can diminish as we men have a tendency, once married or in a long-term partnership, to leave the responsibility of our social lives to our other halves. (Guilty as charged!)

Friendship is important though. For mental health, emotional support, and just a generally richer life experience.

The impact on our health and well-being of loneliness and a lack of social connection is far greater than heavy smoking, obesity, and even being an alcoholic! 

Friendship is good for our brains too. Women, with larger social networks, have a much lower risk of cognitive decline. And loneliness is considered a significant factor in susceptibility to dementia.

When I think back to my late teens through to my early thirties, I was far more active in cultivating friendships. I travelled lots and was constantly in new scenarios meeting new people. It was a rich and rewarding time.

Then children came along. The travel reduced. And the meeting new people massively diminished too. To be fair, this is normal on some levels. It’s a new stage of life with different needs and priorities. But I’ve missed the thrill of meeting strangers and the journey into new friendships. 

I wonder if this is a factor in many mid-life affairs. People stop meeting new people. Their social network reduces. They only people they spend time with are those they are familiar with. And the craving for something—someone—new and unfamiliar takes an unhealthy direction. And it’s not because they don’t love their spouse, or because the relationship is terrible, it’s simply because they no longer have the novelty of meeting new people in their life. If they feed that itch, perhaps they wouldn’t end up making the far more damaging choice. What if the best marital advice for many isn’t to go to counselling, but simply to get back to having a social life, meeting people, making new friends? And that richer social life might well be the missing ingredient to a richer marital life. 

I realise I’ve been writing for some time, but all that is actually an extended lead in to something I read in ‘The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters’ by Priya Parker. She talked about some gatherings she hosts that are focussed on getting a room of strangers to open up and connect on a deeper level. This that she said about strangers stood out to me though:

Strangers, unconnected to our pasts and, in most cases, to our futures, are easier to experiment around. They create a temporary freedom to pilot-test what we might become, however un-tethered that identity is to what we have been. They allow us to try out new sides. In front of a stranger, we are free to choose what we want to show, hide, or even invent.

Put another way, strangers have a role to play in helping us keep developing and evolving as people. New people, who we don’t yet know, can help us unleash new versions of ourselves. 

And, inevitably, the moment we stop connecting with strangers (aka, opening the door to new friendships), we also shut the door to our own ongoing growth and development as people.

All of that to say (first and foremost for myself): friendship matters!

—Sam

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👉 @samradford | samradford.com