Post 29: The Value of a Network of Low Stakes Casual Friendships

In the past two blogs, I have shared some very serious, even religious, thoughts (by David Brooks and Sister Barbara Smith) on the importance of being open to the depth and uniqueness of each human person we encounter. This week I want to offer a parallel confirmation of the value of being open and available to others from the field of psychology as offered in a “Smarter Living” column by Allie Volpe in The New York Times (May 6, 2019). It turns out that by showing an interest in a broad network of “low stakes, casual friendships” we do a great service to ourselves as well.

She writes:

When I was laid off in 2015, I told people about it the way any good millennial would: By tweeting it. My hope was that someone on the fringes of my social sphere would point me to potential opportunities.

To my surprise, the gambit worked.

Shortly after my public plea for employment, a friend of a friend sent me a Facebook message alerting me to an opening in her department. Three rounds of interviews later, this acquaintance was my boss. (She’s now one of my closest friends).

Think of the parents you see in the drop-off line at school. Your favorite bartender. The other dog owners at the park. The sociologist Mark Granovetter calls these low-stakes relationships “weak ties.” Not only can these connections affect our job prospects, they also can have a positive impact on our well-being by helping us feel more connected to other social groups, according to Dr. Granovetter’s research. Other studies have shown weak ties can offer recommendations (I found my accountant via a weak tie) and empower us to be more empathetic. We’re likely to feel less lonely, too, research shows.

A 2014 study found that the more weak ties a person has (neighbors, a barista at the neighborhood coffee shop or fellow members in a spin class), the happier they feel. Maintaining this network of acquaintances also contributes to one’s sense of belonging to a community, researchers found.

Where you convene with acquaintances matters, too. Settings like a bar or a company party encourage mingling with people who may be on the outskirts of our social circles, said Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship expert, adds, “We can have friends or acquaintances in different contexts who add meaning to our lives in their own way,” she said. “We have an acquaintance at work that we connect and talk about work projects, or dog-walking friends. It helps to have these different kinds of people in our lives to add different kinds of support.”

Seeing acquaintances removed from their usual contexts can also help elevate these casual connections into genuine friend territory. A study from 2018 found that people formed a “casual” friendship after spending 30 hours together. While a 20-minute chat with your hairstylist outside the salon is far shy of dozens of hours, the interaction brings you closer to having more common ground.

Regularly interacting with people who have different experiences than we do allows us to be more mindful of others’ circumstances, according to Dr. Epley. This, in turn, builds empathy. As research has shown, more empathetic people are more likely to be sought out by peers for comfort.

Tim Herrera, Editor of the Smarter Living section, praised Ms. Volpe’s column the next week (NYT, May 12, 2019), and added this:

This idea is perfectly summed up in Scott Galloway’s book “The Algebra of Happiness.” Mr. Galloway compares the everyday maintenance of relationships to compound interest: We make investments in those relationships through our words and actions, and over time those investments allow our relationships to blossom.

“Take a ton of pictures, text your friends stupid things, check in with old friends as often as possible, express admiration to co-workers, and every day, tell as many people as you can that you love them,” he writes. “A couple of minutes every day — the payoff is small at first, and then it’s immense.”

Yes, the metaphor is a bit of a stretch, and at worst one might read it as a tad cold (relationships shouldn’t simply be transactional, of course). But the wisdom contained in it is deeply insightful. Shared experiences with our friends and loved ones — no matter how small — are what get us through the other parts of our lives. Sending your friend a silly tweet you saw can brighten both of your days, and expressing gratitude has been found to make both you and the receiver feel measurably happy. One study found that even “social interactions with the more peripheral members of our social networks contribute to our well-being.”


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