“It’s a small world!” We hear and say it all the time – it’s probably one of the most common clichés and, throughout our lives, we accumulate gigabytes of memories, impossible stories, haphazard connections and crazy coincidences that verify it. The world’s population is approximately 7 billion and the US is just over 300 million – that’s a lot of friken faces — but for as vast and populated as this rock may be, we often cross paths with someone we know in the most random, chance situations.

I love being cyber-connected and knowing people everywhere, yet it never ceases to amaze me how a few degrees separates most of us. I’ve actually had it happen where a Venezuelan acquaintance (who lived in LA) knew somebody I knew from Venezuela with no real connection other than coincidence. How can that be? Venezuela’s population is over 25 million and I might know, at the very most, maybe a couple dozen people there. What are the chances that two totally random people I met—years apart, and by completely different circumstances—know one other? Well, I have a theory about all this: I call it the Cafeteria Effect.

In all those cheesy 80’s movies (i.e. 16 Candles, Can’t Buy Me Love, Pretty In Pink, et al), there is always a common scene. All those flicks depict what many of us experienced first hand in our high schools and even earlier – the establishment of cliques and social groups over food. Never are human demographics more clearly on display than during lunch period. Just as most cafeterias sport those movie theater, round nachos with the in-tray cheese reservoir, subscribe to Square-Pizza-Fridays and employ Mr. Creepy Janitor/Cafeteria Dude who’s always spying the teenyboppers, cafeterias also consistently reveal established tables (“social zones”) designated to certain crowds (“groups”). Table-plots divvy up into the jocks and cheerleaders, rockers and gothics, followed by the gamer (Dungeons and Dragons) computer geek squad, skaters and BMXers, maybe even the physics club and the tree huggers. School cafeterias are psychological arenas where, for the first time, social constructs begin to take root and solidify beneath our lunchboxes. These cafeterias prelude anecdotal evidence “like attracts like” and “birds of a feather flock together.”

However, what we don’t realize is that The Cafeteria Effect doesn’t end in high school; it carries into college and continues to grow with us into our professional years. At any university, our metaphorical cafeteria becomes much larger and so does our “table,” but the sphere of those with whom we congregate remains similarly well-defined. Moreover, these “cafeteria tables” often go a step further, becoming official via a team, a club or a fraternity/sorority.

In essence, no matter what city in which we end up, career path we take, or where our social circle carries us, we return to that similar demographic clique established in the cafeteria.

To state this theory succinctly:

The Cafeteria Effect is the theory that we perceive the world as “small” due to our innate, social instinct to gravitate to individuals with similar interests, appearance, intelligence, type and general demographics, drastically reducing the degrees of separation between people in individual groups, even if geographically widespread.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Invariably, whenever I start to explain this theory to someone, those listening can’t wait to interject and adamantly object that they never stuck to just one table; or they bounced around; or they were friends with everyone; or they changed so much since back then. Funny thing is — this, in-of-itself, can be considered part of the theory. Many of those who fall into the aforementioned criteria make up a “table” of their own… those who bridge demographics comprise a sub-group… let’s call them an “overlap table.” The Ferris Buellers of the world who can sit with “the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads – they all adore him – they think he’s a righteous dude” kinda people.

To wit, I will take it one step further and propose a Cafeteria Table hypothesis – if we took our closest friends today, magically went back in time and all became seniors at the same high school — Would it be wrong of me to predict that the majority of us would be sitting at the SAME DAMN TABLE?  I would imagine we’d be jiving, in a more remedial sense of course, about one of our common topics as we plow down one of those plastic trays of round nachos.

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