• T. W. Emory

Handy Hearing Ears

Research now indicates that the “old saw” about bartenders and hairdressers performing the role of “shrinks” is not just a tired cliché nor merely anecdotal. According to studies done by a Harvard sociologist, far more people than you might think will open up to strangers about important decisions and serious matters, rather than discuss such things with their close friends and intimates. In fact, almost half of the respondents questioned in the study, said they’d recently confided in people they weren’t particularly close to or who weren’t important to them. Not surprising, included among these confidants of choice were actual experts like financial advisors, doctors, therapists, and the like. However, almost as often, such non-intimate sounding boards were selected for their availability, and included hairdressers, bartenders, gym-buddies, service-providers, and fellow passengers on some form of public transportation. This is probably not a real shocker, since typically those referred to as “consequential strangers” (aka “peripheral” or “weak” ties) greatly outnumber a person’s family and close friends, being sandwiched, as they are, somewhere in that vast social wasteland between complete strangers and our intimates. Furthermore, there are actually some sensible reasons why many find it easier (possibly even less painful) to confide in non-intimates.

For example, if a particular “hearing ear” is not likely to be seen or heard from again, then such anonymity might have great appeal when it comes to getting something off your chest, acting as a kind of “safety valve” for harmlessly venting feelings of tension or stress about a given matter—an off the cuff catharsis, as it were. On the same token, if your listener doesn’t know you, your personality, your social environment, your work milieu, or your history, then they may be better able to give you a fresh outlook on things, since their ignorance and emotional detachment can equip them with an objectivity you might not get from a close friend who knows you oh so well. Too, opening up to someone who is quite different than yourself when it comes to interests, personality, line of work, walk of life, etc., can sometimes work wonders as far as broadening your outlook on life and its possibilities. And, since a stranger doesn’t know you or have anything invested in you, this can free him up to be more straightforward with you than a close friend might dare to be. For that matter, you may be willing to entertain and even accept a stranger’s candid assessment of what you’ve shared in a way that you may not with an intimate.

So, the next time a total stranger tells you his or her life story, or bounces a controversial opinion off you, take comfort in the fact that you may actually be providing a kindly service as a “safety valve” or an on the fly shrink.

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