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A-Ha Moments

Recovering from a Break-In: A Social Capital Story

Written by: Bill Sherman on Friday, 19 September 2008, 11:06 AM

On Monday, a friend of mine, Marie, had her home broken into. I’d like to share her story, because it illustrates many positive points within social capital.

Marie is not wealthy. She owns her own home, but she lives paycheck-to-paycheck, slightly above the poverty line. She’s the sort of person who lives frugally and manages her account to the penny. A few months ago, she purchased a used four-year-old laptop. It was a big investment for her, but she decided that she needed to improve her computer skills so she can get a better job.

The break-in happened during the afternoon, while Marie was away at work. The thief kicked in the garage door, emptied the contents of every drawer, and tossed furniture and bedding around. Most importantly, the person took Marie’s laptop.

After leaving Marie’s home, the thief next went to a neighbor’s house, but the neighbor was home and she called the police. Marie learned about the break-in when the police called her. There wasn’t a formal neighborhood watch program in the community, but neighbors cared for neighbors. They looked out for each other.

Marie put out a call to her friends asking her to help her reorganize her home. Several people came over, and within a couple of hours we tamed the “whirlwind” of strewn possessions.

Next, she turned her attention to the door between the garage and the house. The door frame was destroyed, and it needed to be replaced. She called her friend who works as a locksmith. They’ve known each other for over 10 years, and they live within 5 minutes of each other. He was out-of-town for a week, but he said, “hang on, let me call a buddy for you. He’ll take care of you.”

When the locksmith arrived, he said, “My buddy said to take care of you. So, let’s take my truck to Home Depot. You buy the door. I won’t do any markup, and then I’ll install it for you at 40% my usual rate.” She blinked with surprise and gratitude.

The story doesn’t end there. Her coworkers had heard of the break-in. The employees are a mix of full-time and part-time. Yesterday, one of her coworkers asked her to step aside with her. The coworker said, “I know you lost your laptop. I’d like you to get another one.” She then handed Marie a check and said “if it costs more, let me know.” Marie was thrilled, but she deeply wondered “why?” As the conversation progressed, she heard her coworker explain.

The coworker (in her sixties) had gone through a rough divorce and then spent time mustering courage to rejoin the dating pool. Marie had sat with her for many days in lunchroom–listening to her frustrations and encouraging her to get back out and meet people.

It all came down to this: “You were there when I needed support. I want to be there for you.”

That night, Marie reached out to one of her tech friends and asked for suggestions on purchasing a laptop. So, within a week, she’d found help that will get her back on track.

What can Marie’s story tell us about social capital?

  1. It’s not the number of contacts in your network, it’s how willing people will be able to act on your behalf: the neighbor who called the police; the locksmith and his friend; the coworker; and the tech friend.
  2. A heterogeneous network allows you to mobilize different types of knowledge, skills, and resources. Marie could reach into her network to find someone to fix her door and an IT person to help her choose a laptop.
  3. Investments of time and care made into others will sometimes yield unexpected returns.

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