Being There For A Stranger

Craig Lambert considers our propensity to make confidantes of outsiders:

Sociologists call the set of friends and family members people turn to when they want to talk out important matters the “core discussion network.” Its size averages about three people, and for 20 percent of the population, this network, sadly, includes no one. For nearly 30 years, social-network researchers have argued that each person’s closest, strongest ties comprise the core discussion network, but no one has empirically tested that assumption.

[Researcher Mario Luis] Small analyzed data from an online survey of 2,000 adults selected to represent the national U.S. population. Half the respondents were asked to identify their core discussion partners, but the other half were asked to “recall the last time they discussed a matter that was important to them. They were then asked to report on the topic they talked about and the person they talked to,” writes Small. They were also asked to report whom they were close to. These data produced the finding that 45 percent of confidants were people whom the respondents did not consider personally important; they were often not the family and close friends social scientists thought them to be.

Instead, a confidant might well be a barber or beauty-salon employee, a bartender, a therapist (either physical or psychological), or a trainer at the gym; they are priests, rabbis, doctors, and financial advisers. …

“In fact, we often avoid using people who are close to us as confidants,” Small explains, “exactly because they are important to us.” For one thing, a troublesome issue might concern that potential listener directly: one classic case is an extramarital affair. Another obstacle can arise if the discussion would worry the confidant: “A graduate student running short of money might not talk about this with his parents, out of fear of worrying them,” says Small. Third, people have more at stake in how important others see them. “If you are close to your sister, you don’t want to talk with her about some borderline-unethical action you are considering,” he explains. “You care a lot about her opinion of you.” And fourth, people avoid confiding in others because, inevitably, word gets around to someone else: in Small’s formulation, “Amy won’t talk to Bob about this, because then it will get to Charles.”