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Book Excerpt: 'Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives'

Only a few degrees of separation - Introduced by a friend of a friend.

Nicholas and his wife Erika like to joke that they had an arranged marriage, South Asia style. Though they lived within four blocks of each other for two years and were both students at Harvard, their paths never crossed. Erika had to go all the way to Bangladesh so that Nicholas could find her.

In the summer of 1987, he went to Washington, D.C., where he had grown up and gone to high school, to care for his ailing mother. He was a medical student, single, and, he foolishly thought, not ready for a serious relationship. His old high-school friend, Nasi, was also home for the summer. Nasi’s girlfriend, Bemy, who had come to know Nicholas well enough that her gentle teasing was a source of amusement for all of them, was also there. She had, as it turned out, just returned from a year in rural Bangladesh, doing community development work.

In the waterlogged village where Bemy had spent her year abroad was a beautiful young American woman with whom she shared a burning desire to end poverty and a metal bucket to wash her hair. You probably know where this story is going.

One afternoon, in the middle of the monsoon, while writing a postcard to Nasi, Bemy suddenly turned to her friend Erika and blurted out: “I just thought of the man you’re going to marry.” That man was Nicholas.

Erika was incredulous. But months later, she agreed to meet him in D.C., when the four of them had dinner at Nasi’s house. Nicholas was of course immediately smitten. Erika was “not unimpressed,” as she later put it. That night, after getting home, Erika woke up her sister to announce that she had, indeed, met the man she was going to marry. Three dates later, Nicholas told Erika he was in love. And that is how he came to marry a woman who was three degrees removed from him all along, who had practically lived next door, who had never known him before but who was just perfect for him.

Such stories—with varying degrees of complexity and romance—occur all the time in our society. In fact, a simple Google search for “how I met my wife” and “how I met my husband” turns up thousands of narratives, lovingly preserved on the Internet. ...

The romantic essence of these stories is that they seem to involve both luck and destiny. But, if you think about it, these meetings aren’t so chancy. What these stories really have in common is that the future partners started out with two or three degrees of separation between them before the gap was inexorably closed.

Excerpted from Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.Copyright 2009 by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler with permission from Little, Brown and Company.

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