There are an estimated 7.7 billion people in the world at this moment. Out of that, roughly 7 million reside in the Grand Canyon State according to the 2018 census, and almost 72,000 out of that pool call Flagstaff home. Now, whether those people are year-round residents or not is a completely different topic, but it’s still a fair amount of people living within almost 65 square miles. It’s unlikely that you would personally know that many people, but what is likely is that you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone.
Enter the theory of six degrees of separation.
It was first introduced in a short story written by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in 1929. In “Chains,” he posited the idea that any two people in the world are connected by five others or less.
A series of experiments later conducted by Stanley Milgram took a similar approach in researching the small-world networks. He gave packages to people in Nebraska and Kansas, tasking them with delivering it to someone in Massachusetts by proxy. Ideally, they would be able to choose a friend who was more likely to know someone who knows someone who could get the package to the person in Massachusetts. The average amount of people who handled the package before it reached its target? Six.
Flagstaff is a temporary home for many people, but anyone who’s stuck around a while has likely realized how small the world of Flagstaff really is. (See: Dating a local for several years and then the inevitability of running into either them or their friends—or both—every time you step foot outside following the break up.)
The six degrees of separation theory has been further explored in pop culture. There’s the game where a group of people try to connect any actor to Kevin Bacon based on overlapping movie roles. There was the 2006 movie Babel, in which the characters’ lives are closely intertwined despite them not knowing each other and living thousands of miles away from each other. Playwright John Guare wrote a play called Six Degrees of Separation in 1990 which is thought to have been most responsible for popularizing the phrase, along with the subsequent film adaptation of the same name in 1993.
As one character in Guare’s play said, “I find it A) extremely comforting that we’re so close, and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection.”
About three years ago, my friend Sylene wanted to check out the opening of a new bar down the street from her apartment in the Southside neighborhood. I began talking to one of the bartenders who Sylene had worked with when she first moved to town. We later added each other on Facebook and saw we had an unexpected friend in common outside of various musicians and artists around town—my uncle who lives in Washington.
I’m not here to share the details of someone else’s life, but, long story short, my uncle had attended NAU in the ‘70s and became close friends with this person’s parents. When his mother was pregnant with him and her water broke, my uncle was there to drive her to the hospital and was a part of this person’s life through their toddler years.
Another time, when I was an intern at the Arizona Daily Sun, I wrote a feature on the annual Flagstaff Chili Festival. That same uncle shared my article on Facebook and one of the people I had talked to during the event commented on it—another connection that lasted through the years since said uncle moved to Washington.
Then there was the time I met Stacy Murison when bringing her on board as a Letter from Home writer. I sat down across from her at Firecreek and one of the first things she said was I looked familiar. I couldn’t quite place her either, but we soon realized we had seen each other before at Orchestra Northern Arizona concerts where I had played upright bass for two seasons and her husband percussion—what a delightful surprise that was.
In most cases, these coincidences are a welcome peek into the bigger picture, and if you haven’t experienced a version of this six-degrees phenomenon in Flagstaff yet, just wait.