Six Degrees of Separation

The “Six degrees of separation” theory is pretty simple. Originated by Frigyes Karinthy in the late 1920s, it suggests that every person on this earth is six or fewer steps away from another person. It suggests that no matter how far apart two people are in the world, it will take a maximum of six steps, six communicatory signals, to bring them together.

To say the least, this puts a bit of an emphasis on the whole “it’s a small world” idiom.

In the late 1960s, a sociologist named Stanley Milgram decided to test the theory. Milgram randomly selected people who lived in the mid-West, and gave them each package to send to a stranger in Massachusetts whom they had never met, only receiving the target’s name, occupation, and general location. The senders sent their packages to people they thought might have something in common with the target, then those people would do the same, and so on. 

It was expected that the package would go through tens of senders before reaching the target, but Milgram found that it only took between five and seven people.

In 2001, a professor named Duncan Watts recreated Milgram’s research, this time using the internet, and expanding the locations to hundreds of different countries. He, too, found that the average number of intermediaries was six.

As I near my “take off date,” I’ve been thinking a lot about the connections people make with one another, and maybe if we’re all a little closer to each other than we think. I predict that there are two main feelings that my fellow fellows and I are experiencing. Fear and excitement. Or maybe fearful excitement? But as each week of my summer goes by, the fear seems to be fading and the excitement growing.

I’m excited to learn a new language. I’m excited to meet new people. I’m excited to exit my element. I’m excited to see different colors in buildings and on streets, and to see people make different hand gestures to say hello. I’m excited to try all kinds of different foods, some that I’ll absolutely love, and some that I’m sure I’ll hate but will eat anyways to be respectful to my host family.

I’m even excited for the bad parts.

The parts where I’ll have no idea what anyone is saying, because as much language preparation as I can do beforehand, there’s no way I can prepare myself for each region’s individualized slang and accents. There will be parts where I’ll have no idea where I am or how to get where I need to go, and will probably subsequently have a tiny meltdown in a crowd full of people. There will be times where I’ll stick out like a sore thumb, because my skin is too light, or my ridiculously thick, curly hair isn’t exactly the norm.

And, even as I write this, I might be completely wrong. About everything. About what to expect or what I’ll be doing or how I will feel, and I won’t be able to change it.

But I’ll be okay. Because despite the fact that I’ve never been away from my family for more than exactly 12 days, that I’ll be in an entirely different hemisphere and continent for the first time in my life, and that I’ll be living with strange people with different customs and lives that I have almost nothing in common with, I’ll be okay.

Our world may be big, but those six measly degrees will remind me that the strangers I meet, the food I eat, and the language I speak isn’t entirely unknown or alien, but just a few degrees apart.