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Six Degrees


Most people know about the famous ‘six degrees of separation’ theory.

It suggests that each individual is connected to any other person in the world through six acquaintances. I have one degree of separation between myself and my friends, two degrees between myself and my friends’ friends, and so on. Mathematicians have actually proven the theory using a fancy thing called the Flajolet-Martin algorithm. It’s official: you could make a phone call to the Queen of England or the Dalai Lama in less than six steps (if they actually pick up their own phones).

This got me thinking: Reunion being so small, and families being so close, it would logically be less than six degrees of separation here. To test my theory, I used the most reliable and accessible social research tool available to me: that big blue social media site! I went onto a fan page for a soccer team in the south of the island, a sport and region I have no real connection to. Randomly, I clicked on the profile of the first person I saw on the page. Unsurprisingly, we had no friends in common. But as I scanned their friends list, one of the names rang a bell. Sure enough, it was the brother of a good friend of mine. As I had predicted, there were only three degrees of separation between myself and a complete stranger. I had already done something kind of creepy, so I investigated several more times with other profiles. I soon realized two important things. First, many people have no idea how much information is publicly visible on social networks. I could find people’s phone numbers, addresses, where they worked and their children’s names. Secondly, this island really is tiny in a social sense. Even though, as a foreigner, I’m a newcomer to the island, I could quite easily connect to nearly any person I found through two or three friends of friends.

Often when I’ve mentioned an administrative problem I’m having at the prefecture or the secu, my in-laws will ask the name of the public servant who was in charge of my file. I never understood what the objective of that question was. Now I do. In the back of the Reunionese mind, there’s always the idea that potentially you know someone who works somewhere important, and if you don’t know them personally you’ll have a friend who does. This is sometimes used to get a favour for a friend or family member, such as a job or a discount. I’ve always found this a bit unfair. At the same time, it shows how interconnected everyone really is. And that’s a strangely comforting thought.

Vocabulary : acquaintances – connaissances • fancy – classe • to pick up – décrocher • close – proche • less than – moins de • reliable – fiable • soccer team – équipe de foot •randomly – au hasard • to ring a bell – rappeler de quelque chose • creepy – sinistre • newcomer – nouveau arrivé • to mention – parler de •the in-laws – la belle-famille • public servant – fonctionnaire • file – dossier • favour – un service • unfair – injuste • comforting – rassurant