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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Closing the Relationship Gap

The "six degrees of separation" theory -- the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by only six links -- has been around since the early 1960's. A few years ago ABC's Primetime reported on an experiment conducted by Columbia University professor Duncan Watts to see who could connect themselves to a random third individual the fastest.

Each participant, or "searcher," was assigned a random "target," one of 18 people around the world. Their job was to link to this person via e-mail by creating a human chain. First, the participants e-mailed someone they knew. Then they asked that person to continue the links by e-mailing someone else they knew. The hope was to eventually send an e-mail to someone who knew the "target" personally, completing the chain. 

Around 60,000 people from 170 countries took part in the experiment. Of the hundreds of chains that were completed, they discovered that the average number of links was six, supporting the six degrees of separation theory. (To read the full report, visit abcnews.go.com/Primetime/story?id=2717038.)

Funny. I've always thought the separation between people was greater than six degrees. Maybe I learned it from living in a less-than-friendly Detroit suburb. When we moved here twelve years ago, I was eager to meet our neighbors, build relationships and just enjoy new friends. Shortly after moving in, my husband saw the elderly woman who lives next door and told her how eager I was to meet her. Her chilly response was, "Well, winter's coming soon. Tell your wife I'll meet her next spring." After all these years, I still haven't had a conversation with the woman.

I experienced the exact opposite a few weeks ago on a visit with our daughter and son-in-law, who live in Edgewood, New Mexico, a small town east of Albuquerque. While our next-door neighbor in Michigan is separated from us by a mere stone's throw, my daughter's next-door neighbor lives on the other side of their five-acre ranch. We walked the equivalent of a couple of city blocks to get to the nearest house.

The neighbors were thrilled for our company. They warmly invited us in, offered something to drink and spent a couple of hours just chewing the fat. Two other neighbors gave us freshly-laid eggs from their chickens and offered their horses and mules for us to ride. One of them said they were going to visit Michigan soon and asked if we could meet them for dinner. Another neighbor paid our way and served as our personal tour guide at a local wildlife rescue zoo.

In the five days I spent in New Mexico, I learned more about my kids' neighbors than I know about my own neighbors after living here for more than a decade. Our kids have lived in Edgewood for only five months. My son-in-law has already added all of his distant neighbors to the contact list on his phone. I have a few neighbors' names and numbers jotted down on pieces of paper sloppily tacked to a bulletin board in my laundry room. My son-in-law gets calls like, "Do you have a minute to come and help me bury a dead rattlesnake?" (He was out the door in a flash, by the way.) I observe from the window of our kitchen as an ambulance pulls up and whisks the neighbor whose name I don't know to the hospital.

Edgewood might be a small town, but they're big on time, genuine concern for each other and availability to develop relationships. If there are degrees of separation in our relationships, we have created them ourselves.

Maybe I'll try burying a dead rattlesnake in the yard, right on the property line. It may not build a relationship with my elderly neighbor, but it certainly would get her attention. That's a good way to start, don't you think?