Consequential Strangers: Turning Everyday Encounters Into Life-Changing Moments
By Melinda Blau, Karen L. Fingerman, Ph.D.
On a shopping excursion with her husband, Sue Ellen Cooper bought herself a bright red vintage fedora just for the fun of it. A few months later, Cooper, a mural painter and freelance illustrator from Fullerton, California, started a birthday tradition: She gave a red hat to each friend who turned fifty (or older). Cooper also included a framed copy of "Warning," a poem she had discovered decades earlier in a funky used-book shop. It's about a woman pondering the freedoms she'll allow herself when she is old. She'll wear purple with a red hat, learn to spit, and in other ways make up for the "sobriety" of her youth. "But," the woman muses, "maybe I ought to practice a little now? So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised."
Practicing seemed like a good idea to Cooper and her friends. At one point she convinced the lot of them to go out for lunch in their red hats and purple outfits-an outing that somehow unleashed their most carefree, playful selves. "Something magical happened that afternoon," says Cooper. Dubbing themselves the Red Hat Society, they vowed to plan other adventures. Little more than a decade later, thanks to word-of-mouth (more on that later), the Red Hat Society is everywhere. Although the name might conjure an image of latter-day dowagers, this is no ladies' auxiliary club. Their only rule is that there are no rules. Now with nearly 40,000 chapters throughout the United States and abroad, an estimated million "Red Hatters" have inspired media coverage, conventions, a Broadway musical, and a platinum MasterCard.
A generation largely comprised of wives and mothers who stayed at home, worked, or volunteered, Red Hatters are married, widowed, divorced, and single. They're now at a point in life when some of their old roles have become less relevant or less appealing. It's easy for them to feel invisible. So they relish small acts of rebellion, like eating dessert before the main course, entering a grape-stomping contest (a la Lucy and Ethel), parachuting from a plane to celebrate a sixtieth birthday. Imagine a mother of four, unleashing her inner Rambo, her first time ever at a firing range, or a gaggle of grandmas playing laser tag against local teenagers. One group held a "wallflower prom"-no dates, but heavy on the glitz and glamour. Another chapter marched in a Mardi Gras parade, led by a fiftysomething who brought her baton out of storage and revisited her old role of majorette.
But this is not simply a story about women finding companionship in midlife or allowing their "inner children" to come out and play. The Red Hat Society is a social laboratory of sorts, illustrating one of the key benefits of consequential stranger relationships: Each tie is a potential resource, a spark that ignites our self-awareness and often propels us in an unexpected direction. It is often in throwaway moments and everyday conversation with our acquaintances that we acquire important information, decide whether or not to embrace a new idea or product, or try on a persona that is less likely to be welcomed at home. A story told by former first lady Laura Bush about a visit to her in-laws' house illustrates this point: "George sat on the sofa and put his feet up on the coffee table. And all of a sudden, Barbara Bush hollered, 'Put your feet down.' George's dad said, 'For goodness' sake, Bar, he's the President of the United States.' Without pause, the older Mrs. Bush replied, 'I don't care-I don't want his feet on my coffee table.'" Laura Bush concluded that "even Presidents have to listen to their mother.'" But the story also shows how intimates tend to freeze-frame us. They see only one facet of our identity, whereas casual relations are more likely to allow us to TiVo different aspects of ourselves.
Together the Red Hatters sustain a culture that encourages them to become more than who they are. And yet there are no obligations; the main objective is to have a good time. As Cooper explains it, new members are sometimes "giddy with the sense of freedom. They can express who they are today. They don't have to conform to an old image or explain that they are changing certain aspects of themselves."* The society offers its members a smorgasbord of relationships that come with no baggage and even less predictability. Many join because they want novel experiences and an opportunity to, metaphorically and literally, wear a new outfit. "On one of our bus trips, a woman revealed that she normally dresses very 'corporate' and behaves in a rather circumspect manner at work," Cooper recalls. "She didn't think her coworkers would believe it if they saw her in red and purple, with feathers and rhinestones! In some ways, this is akin to an actress playing a role and really putting herself into it. After all, she's just playing a part!"