• S.E. Burr

The Power of Minor Influences

If I hadn't sworn to myself that I'd stop quoting Twenty One Pilots in my blog, I would tell you how whenever they are asked about their musical influences they say there are too many to mention so they won't mention any. It's an annoying answer to an annoying question, but I think they have a point. When a person writes an autobiography, they talk about lovers, parents, friends, collaborators, enemies. They don't talk about grocery store checkers, coworkers they chat with occasionally, or rude employees at the DMV, and they're even less likely to mention the author of some book which they liked and thought about occasionally but forgot the name of. I think we underestimate the collective power of the minor characters in our lives. I'd like to talk about three such groups in my life: strangers, acquaintances, and people I'm in parasocial relationships with.

Strangers: This year, I was invited to a Saturday Thanksgiving celebration. That's obviously not the official day, so on Thursday I went to a Thanksgiving lunch put on by the American Legion. I'd seen a flyer for it where they invited the public to a free feast. I loved it. I loved enjoying a great meal surrounded by mostly older people and veterans, all of whom I didn't know at all and barely spoke to. Everything I did say was about whether I wanted smoked or roasted turkey and whether I wanted corn or green beans. I loved hearing them talk to each other. I loved watching them serving their community, including me. And finally, I have to admit, I love things that are free.

I've been riding the bus lately to and from work, and I've witnessed a fair amount of annoying or inconsiderate behavior on it, but I've also heard basically every single person who gets off the bus say "Thank you," or "Have a good one," or "See you tomorrow," to the bus driver, and he responds in kind. I really like that. I just like being around people, the mass of humanity generally, and I don't know exactly what impact it has on me, but I think that it tends to be at least moderately positive.

Acquaintances: I heard someone I don't know well tell the story (not directly to me) about how her sister has a friend who wants to become a life coach and is practicing on her (the sister.) One assignment the friend gave the sister was to write down three words that she thinks describe her, then ask her friends and family to describe her in three words, and then pray or ponder and ask God or the Universe for three words, too. I decided to try something similar, and to be a little brave and ask people when I really had no idea how they'd answer. It's been an eye opening experience. I don't know what kind of impact it will have on me long term, if any, but it's already had some impact. Think about that. I've been influenced by my acquaintance's, sister's, wanna-be-life-coach friend, and now I'm telling this story to you, and if you try it, too, then you'll have been influenced by some writer's, acquaintance's, sister's, wanna-be-life-coach friend. I don't know the name of the friend or even the sister, and you don't know the name of my acquaintance, so am I even talking about acquaintances now, or am I talking about strangers? Either way, none of this would have happened if I hadn't been in a place to overhear that story.

In a recent episode of the Freakonomics Podcast, called "Trust Me" they talk about how one reason members of our society have gotten more distrustful of each other is that they don't know each other very well. Participation in every kind of organization, whether volunteer or social, has been falling in recent decades. We've used our wealth to make and get technology that makes it so we don't have to deal directly with one another.

I wasn't sure I was going to go to that American Legion lunch I enjoyed so much. The flyer wasn't very clear. I thought I would have to pay, and I didn't know if it would be a price I thought was reasonable. A major reason I decided to go was because I'd just listened to that podcast. I felt bad because lately I've been staying in the house and using technology to avoid people, and even though I knew I wouldn't be joining the American Legion, I thought I could at least get out and be around people who were different than me.

Parasocial Relationships: So Stephen Dubner, the host of the podcast, and his guest that day, David Halpern, influenced me even though I don't know them at all. But there are plenty of people online who I don't know, who I never-the-less feel like I know, and who have a big influence on my life. In the past when you saw someone and they talked to you regularly, it was because you knew them. That's not the case anymore. With the internet and mass media, we see people all the time who we don't know at all, and our brains aren't entirely equipped to deal with that. These people can be celebrities or they can be fictional characters. Even though we know that they don't know we exist, and they might not even exist themselves, we don't feel it. We feel almost like they're our friends.

This feeling of connection is called a parasocial relationship. (I'll put the Ted talk below.) One example of a parasocial relationship I am in, clearly, is with the members of Twenty One Pilots. You'll be disturbed to know that I've stopped myself from quoting Tyler Joseph far more than I've quoted him. I also feel like I know the members of Mcfly, along with their spouses, and even some of their children. I've got a whole pseudo-family thing going on. Continuing my online band obsession, I feel like I know the guys from Lonely Island (comedian-musicians.) And I even kind of feel like I'm friends with the members of One Direction (gasp.) I have to say that I agree with the Lonely Island guys--the One Direction movie This Is Us, was incredibly endearing and made you feel like the One Direction guys were some of the sweetest young dudes in one of the best bands on the planet. It was strangely hypnotic that way. Don't ask what I was doing watching One Direction's movie in the first place. Just drop it.

The point of the first part of this blog was to say, "Get out of the house and interact with real people," and the point of the second part of this blog seems to be to say, "Stay in and have imaginary interactions with celebrities." (Also, at this point you may be realizing that I've fallen off the wagon with the whole eliminating time wasters thing I talked about previously.) I had a conversation this week, online actually, with a (real) friend of mine, and she was talking about the roll internet interactions and media have in our lives, and that it can be a good roll and an important one. I agree with her. People I don't know have influenced my thinking in a lot of ways, and I'm constantly quoting or misquoting things I've read, or seen, or heard online or in other media. The reason I constantly want to quote Tyler Joseph is because he's said some really cool, surprising things.

Maybe a few of you are having a parasocial relationship with me right now. I'm honored if you're reading my words and being influenced by them. Whenever I see that a complete stranger has liked one of my blog posts on Facebook or Twitter, I think "wow" and I imagine them getting into a conversation with a friend or an acquaintance and saying, "You know, I read somewhere, I don't remember where exactly..." and then they misquote me, but they convey the basic gist of what I was saying, and then I've influenced a person who didn't read my words and has absolutely no idea that I exist, and that's amazing.

And I influence people that way in real life, too. We all do. Each of us is sometimes the equivalent of someone's acquaintance's, sister's, wanna-be-life-coach friend. We influence, and are influenced by, everyone around us in a million ways. I feel like I should say something here about being careful who influences you, who you spend your time with and who you watch online, but I don't want to say it, because I think you already know it. You've heard it before and I don't think that people are so simple as to be easily categorized as good or bad influences. As always, be a little careful with yourself, but I think that everyone has hidden depths and surprising insights to offer, and, in general, it's cool being around people, even if the interaction is online and not really "real." As for the influence we wield, I don't think we have complete control over what that is. Maybe the assignment that that aspiring life coach gave was misinterpreted by the sister, or the acquaintance, or me. Maybe she'd be horrified to learn about the three word thing. All we can control is the gist, not the detail. Do we try to put positivity into the world? Do we try to be thoughtful about the things we say? Do we say what we mean?

How strong an influence do you feel these three groups I've discussed have on you? Is it as big as the influence of friends and family? Do you have a good acquaintance's, sister's, wanna-be-life-coach friend story? Comment below the video.

Previous Blog Posts:

Unintended Consequences and Not Being Able to Reach Someone

I'm a Robot from a Parallel Dimension: Difficulties in Understanding and Communication

Harnessing Despair and Turning It into Creation

My Boxed Book Set:

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