Familiar stranger

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A familiar stranger is an individual who is recognized from regular activities, but with whom one does not interact. First identified by Stanley Milgram in the 1972 paper The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity, It has become an increasingly popular concept in research about social network;

Somebody who is seen observed repetitively, but with whom one does not otherwise communicate, is an example of a familiar stranger; it is a 'visual but not verbal" relationship in which both parties maintain anonymity. These are people who aren't totally unknown to us, but aren't acquaintances either. Such individuals meet in an unfamiliar setting, for example while travelling, they are more likely to introduce themselves than would be perfect strangers, as they have a background of shared experiences.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America (PNAS) published an article which analyzed the phenomenon of familiar strangers, and noted the social implication of metropolitan patterns due to daily encounters. It notes that familiar strangers are a result of an individual's encounter capability which is rooted in daily, behavioral regularity. Findings suggested that these repeated encounters established a strong connection over time, resulting in a large and imperceptible, small world contact network across the metropolitan area. Furthermore, by deriving the specific encounter pattern and identifying this large-scale contact network play a large role in understanding these social acquaintances and collective human behaviors.

The 1972 paper was based on two independent research projects conducted in 1971, one at City University of New York and the other at a train station. Psychology Today published a second paper on the subject by Milgram, Frozen World of the Familiar Stranger, in 1974.

Paulos and Goodman adopted the concept as part of a research program titled Familiar Stranger Project.


Rasch, B., & Born, J. (2013). About Sleep’s Role in Memory. Physiological Reviews, 93(2), 681–766. doi:10.1152/physrev.00032.2012

Carlson, N. R. (2013). Physiology of behavior. Boston :, Pearson.

Paulos, E. and E. Goodman (2004). The familiar stranger: anxiety, comfort, and play in public places. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Vienna, Austria, ACM: 223-230.

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