the strengths of weak ties

The Strengths of Weak Ties

Throughout the pandemic, we have worked particularly hard to maintain connections with our loved ones. We scheduled zoom happy hours and book clubs, read to our grandchildren on facetime, and even took up the long lost art of letter writing.  Technology and creativity helped fill the void so many of us experienced. 

But what about those people who aren’t in our contact list?

Those “weak ties” can make a big difference in our lives.  You know who they are: the receptionist at your gym, the mother of a child in your 4-year old’s ballet class, the barista in the local coffee shop, or the worker at the fruit market.  You wouldn’t qualify this person as a friend, but you chat with them as often as you do your errands.  Is it necessary to take time to foster these relationships too? 

In a groundbreaking sociology paper, The Strength of Weak Ties, Mark Granovetter explored the importance of this acquaintance/friend.  Granovetter qualified relationships in terms of ties: “strong ties” for your inner circle of close friends and family and “weak ties” for those casual acquaintances you share a relationship with but in a much less intense way.  He concluded that, “weak ties are here seen as indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and to their integration into communities.”

Improving our everyday lives

It is important to not underestimate our “weak ties,” or as I prefer, casual friendships.  These relaxed and low commitment relationships conjure feelings of familiarity and belonging that bring real happiness to our lives.  As a person who has moved frequently, I understand this concept well.  The time it takes to cultivate casual friendships in a new neighborhood can be lonely and boring. 

Making Mila’s Day

Walks with our little Mila are more entertaining now that we are likely to run into her friend, Pisco the Pomeranian, and his lovely owner.  And now we look forward to the warm greeting we both get as we pass by the restaurant where my son works.  There is always a bartender, server or cook who greets us enthusiastically.  The extra smiles really do make a difference in both of our days.

New ideas and opportunities

Fostering community and a feeling of belonging isn’t the only benefit of casual friendships.  We tend to surround ourselves with people who are like us: similar beliefs and way of life.  Relationships we experience outside our inner circle expose us to people who are more likely to share a different perspective and new ideas with us. 

“The people whom you spend a lot of time with swim in the same pool of information as you do. We depend on friendly outsiders to bring us news of opportunities from beyond our immediate circles – and so the more of those acquaintances we have, the better.”

Mark Granovetter

Casual friendships can be an inspiration for new growth and provide us with the motivation to actually follow through.  Relaxed conversations about books to read, binge-worthy shows or a new local shop create opportunities in our lives we otherwise may not have discovered.  And these opportunities can sometimes be life changing, like a new job or school.

What if talking to strangers stresses me out?

When I was reading about this concept of “weak ties,” I couldn’t help but consider my introverted friends and family members.  Do weak ties have benefits for people who cringe at the thought of striking up a conversation with a stranger?  It seems they can.  Because the relationship is less intimate, a person can feel a sense of belonging without having to give too much of themselves.  A positive experience with minimal effort and time.

Judith Graham cites Katherine Fiori, a researcher and chair of the psychology department at Adelphi University, in a recent article, “‘In fact, people are more likely to have purely positive experiences with weak ties’ because emotional complications are absent.”

What does this have to do with kindness?

I know, I talk about it all the time.  Kind acts provide emotional and physical benefits for the giver and the receiver.  Taking time in your day to be friendly to the people you encounter is a kind act. One that will bring positivity into that person’s and your lives.  Fostering these casual friendships will increase your feeling of belonging and perhaps even open new doors in your life. 

The next time you run into your neighbor picking up their mail, ask them if they tried the new bakery on the corner or saw that trash pick-up was changed to Wednesdays.  That small comment could lead to a big impact.

Do you remember a time a casual friendship benefitted your life?

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