I ran across the term “familiar strangers” in Rob Walker’s newsletter The Art of Noticing, suggested to him by reader Laura Grace Weldon. A “familiar stranger” is someone you see regularly, but you don’t know personally.
I found that idea fascinating. What familiar strangers do I run across on a regular basis?
Like a lot of the people who work at the Publix supermarket close to me. I’m there several times a week. I know the names of managers, baggers, cashiers and shelf stockers because their names are on their badges. But that’s all I know about them. I follow their progress as they move up from bagger and cart cowboy to cashier, customer service, and assistant manager. If I stop at another Publix, of course none of them are there, and I feel strangely out of place.
The folks at the post office are familiar, too. I even know their spiel asking me if I need any insurance, delivery confirmation, or stamps. Most are exceptionally patient in the face of various customer demands. They’re pretty amazing strangers.
I recognize many of the front office workers and hygienists at the dentist’s office. Twice a year for many years I’ve interacted with many of them. I know my hygienist and dentist pretty well since we get to chat. But the rest are just familiar faces.
Other churches use our building for their worship services and meetings, usually when our congregation isn’t using it. Sometimes we overlap by a few minutes and I know the faces. But they’re usually speaking a different language.
Some of the contractors who do work around the church or our home are familiar faces who stop by a few times a year. There are familiar faces at some of the restaurants we frequent. I know the names of the dogs who walk by our house but not necessarily the names of their walkers.
Then there are the faces of those I no longer see. The tenant church who closed up shop last year. The neighbor’s wife who recently died. The doctors and assistants at my previous eye doctor. The cleaning crew we had to fire.
My circle of familiar strangers is a lot bigger than I realized. They are worth noticing.