Why we miss casual acquaintances

Casual aquaintances

Why we miss casual acquaintances

Are you missing your casual acquaintances? It’s not just in the movies (think Legally Blonde, Coming to America) that people get social support from their hairdresser!

Pre-COVID many of us who live in cities and large country towns would interact with somewhere between 5 and 16 casual acquaintances every day when were out and about. (As someone who lives on a farm this is particularly variable!)

They are people we see semi-regularly but do not know very well – such as our usual barista, the mail person, the neighbour we pass while taking our daily walk, the colleague we share a kitchen with, the person we nod at on the train. These casual acquaintances are the people who researchers call our ‘weak ties’. 

During the pandemic, time in shops was under pressure and we had to be as quick as possible. And some of the human connection was removed by wearing masks and having to socially distance. With the practice of physical distancing, self isolation or being forced into lockdown, these once-common interactions disappeared. Instead our social ties were limited to more formal, scheduled check-ins with family and close friends. 

For some people this was the first time they had ever used Facetime or What’s App, or were introduced to Zoom and project management tools. We adopted the technology, but technology did not solve all of our social needs.

Video interactions can be exhausting

We became committed to regular catch-ups with friends and family – and some of us connected more during the pandemic than before. I know I did! However, on reflection and according to research, these pre-organised video conferences became exhausting as they took a lot of thought and effort. 

Unlike a face-to-face interaction, video interactions make us feel like we have to talk more. There were very few comfortable silences as silences in these interactions are awkward. You were always ‘on’!

Our casual acquaintances on the other hand require little effort. Or the effort is there but it doesn’t have to be sustained for long.

A growing body of research suggests there are some powerful benefits to connecting with our weak ties. The loss of these casual interludes has added to some of the negative feelings we felt during COVID lockdowns.

We are happier when we connect with others

Sociologist Gillian Sandstrom conducted some research which found, unsurprisingly perhaps, that people are happier on days when they said ‘hi’ to a colleague in the hallway or have a brief conversation with a neighbor at the grocery store. In another of Gillian’s studies, people who were asked to ‘personalise’ a transaction at a coffee shop by smiling, making eye contact, and having a genuine social interaction with their barista, felt about 17% happier and more socially connected than those who were asked to be ‘efficient’.

To be sure, our friends and family – our strong ties – support us when we’re feeling down and make us feel appreciated. But weak ties can do these things too. They can make us feel valued or validated.

Both our strong and weak ties are the building blocks of ‘social capital’. Researchers define this as the tangible and intangible benefits we get from our web of contacts, coworkers, friendships, family and more.

We are on our best behaviour with casual acquaintances 

We feel ‘seen’ when someone smiles when they see us and we get a thrill if they remember what our ‘usual’ coffee is. In fact, our interactions with weak ties tend to go especially smoothly, since we are often on our best behaviour with people we don’t know well. Weak-tie relationships give us short, low-cost, informal interactions, which often provide new information and social variety. As a result, we can be pleasantly surprised by these moments.

Our weak ties are often more useful for business, career and personal development

The theory about the value of weak ties has its origins in a paper called The strength of weak ties published in 1973 by Stanford professor Mark Granovetter. He argued that while strong ties (family, friends, colleagues) are fundamental to our lives, it’s the more distant connections (acquaintances, people you strike up a conversation with at a party, friends of friends) that are fundamental to our career and holistic development. These connections, Granovetter suggested, provide us with huge opportunities: they are the route in our lives to new projects, new jobs and new ideas.

This was part of the reason behind why we started Beyond Business Groups – the opportunity to give people with ‘business’ in common the opportunity to support each other in the growth of their business. This is even more important now than ever. These interactions bring new thoughts, different ideas and new ways of thinking that you might not get from your inner circle. While our inner circle can perpetuate and support our fears, our weak ties might help us move away from some of the thoughts and concerns we experienced during the peak of the pandemic giving us hope and optimism.

So just how we can repurpose these casual acquaintance interactions and the informality and spontaneity of them to help us stay connected is an ongoing challenge during the COVID uncertainty. You could create a Beyond Business Group by bringing together business acquaintances to learn together, you could join a book club, become a volunteer or find a new group online or in your local neighbourhood.

How did you interact with your strong ties and what was the first weak tie interaction you enjoyed out of lockdown?

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