Degrees of Connection

A chance encounter in Ottawa with someone who knew my nephew-by-marriage on the West Coast provokes thoughts about our connections.



I turn, in some surprise. I don’t usually answer to ‘Blair’ but the chatty guy behind me in line has just identified the first name of my nephew-by-marriage. How did two strangers arrive at this point? Thanks for asking.

Every six months, Mary — a woman I’ve never met but who maintains a phoning list of once-and-possibly-future customers — calls me from the small community of North Gower.  Do I want tickets for the upcoming spring (or fall, as the case may be) community supper? The spring supper is roast beef, and once was enough, but the fall supper is turkey. Given my sad history with this bird, I jump at the chance, schedule permitting.

And so it is that the Big Guy and I are standing in line to pick up our set-aside tickets, so that we can stand in line to get seated in one of three ‘pods’ of chairs, so that we can sit in rows with twenty-eight others for one of eight thirty-seater tables to come free in this community gymnasium. As on the Prairies, turkey suppers are popular here in Ontario.

It isn’t long before the grandparents and two pre-school grandchildren standing just behind us reach a parting of the ways: she heads off to the playground with the munchkins; he holds their place in the first line. Having lost his conversational partners, and apparently needing some, he starts talking to me.

In perfectly sensible stages we progress from him identifying a former mayor of North Gower, standing ahead of us in the second line, to a non-partisan political discussion, to a lament about how things have changed in government work, to him asking me if I work for the government, to me demurring and pausing just long enough to realize what my next move must be.

What department do you work for?

Upon hearing that he is recently retired from Environment Canada, I mention that I think my niece’s husband works there, too.

What’s his name?

I tell him the last name but he looks puzzled, and shakes his head.

Well, you wouldn’t likely know him.  He works in Vancouver.

And that’s where we came in.



It’s a common experience: finding a connection with a stranger, or an unexpected connection with an acquaintance. There was that fellow at work, whose great-uncle ran the butcher shop in the town near the farm my mother grew up on. There were the B&B owners in PEI, whose daughter ran the Calgary bridal shop patronized by the CEO of what was then my company. There is the neighbour I know only to wave at, who started this month with a company I left eleven years ago.

It’s so common an experience that the question sometimes seems to be not whether there is a connection, but, instead, whether I will find it.

Was the mother’s name Kitty?

We’ve already ascertained that the woman sitting beside me at the Calgary funeral has, like me, just been at the curling trials in Winnipeg. Now we’re in the process of confirming that she lived near the childhood family home of a former colleague in a small town just east of Calgary.

These are not profound connections, as connections between people go. But maybe any connection, however tangential, will encourage me to look for more.  And maybe that’s profound enough.

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14 Responses to Degrees of Connection

  1. Six degrees of separation is not an empty phrase. So why are we ever surprised by the connections between us? But we are! And as you get older, it becomes even more probable. And if you’ve been “in the public eye” or meet hundreds of new people in a year, like John and I have for decades, the odds increase exponentially, not profoundly, as you say, but amusingly. And anything to surprise us is definitely worthwhile, eh? It completes a kind of circle of life — we’re all in this thing together, sort of.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – If insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result, maybe this, too, is a bit crazy (but in a nice way, as you note) – experiencing the same thing again and again and continuing to be surprised! I looked up “six degrees of separation” for this piece and was surprised that there’s so little research to back it up. But my LinkedIn site can get me to almost any member of the Canadian Forces (no matter how senior) through just one intermediate link. As you say, the flip side of the lack of separation is the connections (and sometimes the multiple connections) that bind us together.

  2. Marion says:

    I found a seat in a marquee tent for 8,000 people at a Buddhist teaching in Portugal in October. Striking up a ‘where are you from’ conversation with the man next to me, I discovered that he is a teacher at the elementary school I attended in London, England, before my family emigrated to Canada. I thought that was a pretty good coincidence.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marion – Well, those Buddhists do get around (in this life and the past and the next, too, no?). It does feel amazing, and it would be amazing except that it almost always happens – not to the same degree, of course, but again and again. When the Big Guy travels alone, he does it almost as a game, to see how quickly he can find the link to that stranger beside him, because it will be there.

  3. Then, there are the connections that link lifetimes, as when in the 1990s my mother’s youngest sister’s husband met a man in Ottawa, where they were visiting, who had known and respected their father, my maternal grandfather, from a small town in Quebec, who died in the 1950s. And the “what if” missed connections: my husband and I were in the same places in Charlottetown, PEI, within three days of one another, our first visits there and at turning points in our lives; we spent the next four years dealing with personal tragedies before we met in Toronto and began the friendship that led to our marriage. Could better planning by either of us have brought us together sooner to have avoided those other circumstances that claimed two lives? Even in the vastness of cyberspace I have stumbled upon someone “in error” who turns out to have an important contribution to a project and responds with graciousness before fading among the stars. As we move along our orbits, perhaps these links you describe that we happen to recognize as related personally show us that no encounter is trivial or even, perhaps, unplanned.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – My brain hurts on those family relationships – I’m glad you can keep it straight! As for the missed/delayed connections that become evident only in hindsight – again, they make you wonder how many of these happen all the time, but we never find out about them. I bumped into a former university prof from Edmonton in a laundromat in Ottawa – how many others have I missed bumping into by a few seconds? And yet within this great web of being, we can still feel isolated and alone – a tragic failure of the imagination.

  4. Jim Taylor says:

    Hi, Isabel,
    I’m late joining in this conversation. I admit to being confused about what constitutes a “degree” of connection. Perhaps that’s because I’ve never had enough persistence to pursue those degrees through. If the other person and I don’t have some immediately common connection — we both live in the same region, or know the same person, or attend the same university — I don’t probe enough to see if we have more distant connections. I suppose if we already know each other, that’s first degree; if we both know the same person, is that second degree. To reach a sixth degree, does Dick have to know Jane whose mother-in-law went to the same school as Harry, while Tom comes from the same place as Sally whose niece Alice subscribes to the paper that Harry edits? Is that six? I wouldn’t have enough patience to chase those connections through to the end.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – I wasn’t happy with my title, but decided to go with it as it evokes the “six degrees of separation” concept, and this is kind of the flip of that. Rather than focusing on the jumps it takes to get to someone, it focuses on the unexpected connection(s) to the person who happens to be sitting right there. Like the funeral attendee – of course we had the deceased in common, but we were also connected through her interest in curling, family history, and the town in which she lives (two connections there – my mother as a child and a one-time colleague as a teenager). I don’t know if those are degrees of connection exactly – they don’t overlap delightfully, as in your example (or plaintive question?), but they do add depth to the link.

  5. Jim Taylor says:

    In spite of my curmudgeonly response above, I do enjoy getting into conversation with total strangers in checkout lineups, parade routes, and dog walking occasions! It’s often amazing the common interests we can discover.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – As I said, it really isn’t a question of whether there’s a connection, but whether I’ll find it. As I wander through my days, I sometimes wonder what connections I’m missing when I don’t engage at that personal level. Maybe we should all take to wearing buttons that say: “How do we know each other? Let us count the ways!”

      • Lovely idea.
        As for the 17%, I think I read it in Harper’s Index…. or …..? can’t remember but it was a legit anonymous survey. And I’m not absolutely sure of the 17% — could have been higher.
        I’ve done it — in my extreme youth of course. Now I don’t need to make up things about myself. Having written a 450-page book on pocket lint is probably taken as a lie, anyway!

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Oh, if it was in Harper’s, that settles it. Actually, these days, it’s not the outright lies that concern me, it’s the mis-remembered stuff. My memory is not as sharp as it used to be (or as I used to think it was, if I remember even that aright!) and sometimes I feel that it will end with me misleading someone on a plane, entirely unintentionally.

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