Whenever the classic ice breaker question of “What’s your favorite movie?” comes up, I always have my answer ready quickly. I say “About Time! Have you seen it?” One of my favorite scenes is when the main character decides to use his time traveling ability to simply live every day over again just once. The scene opens up with him hurried and stressed buying a few things at a convenience store. He doesn’t make eye contact with the cashier and the interaction is catered to the utmost efficiency. Any small talk would be seen as a distraction and an annoying hold up. The next day he lives the day again. This time he makes direct eye contact, smiles, and exchanges brief pleasantries. The actual differences were small but the meaning and significance of the interaction was completely changed. Imagine my excitement when I found out that researchers conducted a study basically replicating my favorite scene from my favorite movie.
In a small experiment, participants were split up into 2 categories at a busy coffee shop: the social condition (make a bit of small talk, make eye-contact) or the efficiency condition (just grab your coffee and go). Afterwards, the people in the social condition reported significantly higher levels of happiness and a sense of belonging. All this to say, the people on the periphery of our lives: our barista, peers at yoga, neighbors, they all matter. Our interactions with them and how we view them can influence our mental well-being and our quality of life.
So what exactly is a weak tie?
A weak tie can be characterized by a couple different factors:
- Quantity: Typically, one doesn’t spend an extensive amount of time with weak ties. Perhaps you briefly chat with the person sitting beside you on the train, or you always make conversation with the same cashier at Trader Joe’s. A weak tie is not someone you’d spend hours talking to.
- Intensity: The substance and depth of relationships with weak ties is not deep nor expansive. You won’t likely spill your guts or have a long vent session with a weak tie, and that’s okay and normal! The benefits of having weak social connections exist without the need to tell your life story to your cashier.
- One role: Close friends and family often enter our lives in many different spheres of influence: we hang out with them on the weekends, we cook with them, we talk to them about a variety of topics. Weak ties typically have just one role in our lives and we only see them in one context.
The “strength of weak tie theory” was initially presented in relation to economic opportunity and advancement. Multiple studies found that acquaintances beyond a close knit circle of family and friends are often more important for job mobility than strong social ties. However, the strength of weak ties theory now goes far beyond economic mobility. Weak ties can contribute to a sense of belonging, enjoyment of life, gratitude, and lower symptoms of depression.
How to engage with weak ties
Be a regular somewhere: Have a routine, whether that’s always answering emails from your favorite café on a Monday morning or getting groceries from the same place on a Sunday afternoon. This routine will create rhythm in your week and you may connect with the people you encounter on a weekly basis. I will always remember the moment when my barista saw me and asked, “the regular drip coffee and granola?” I was thrilled and felt special and known just from that small gesture. Being a regular somewhere can make a significant difference in your weekly routine.
Engage in eye contact: Whenever we interact with another human and we don’t look at them, the humanity of the moment is stolen away. Instead of letting ourselves get distracted or looking at our phone the whole time, making eye contact with the people you come into regular contact with makes you more likely to develop a tie with them.
Be open: Chance opportunities to socially engage can come at any moment. Perhaps you see someone reading your favorite book on the train and you have a chance to comment, or you get to yoga 10 minutes early and have a chance to chat with your instructor. It can be scary to socially engage, but research shows that we rarely regret it. And if you do engage and it goes poorly, don’t sweat it: an openness to potential rejection allows us the opportunity for connection.
An important note
Weak ties do not replace strong social support. You may be tempted after reading this to say “Great! No more difficult conversations with my annoying family or scary vulnerability with my loved ones. I can receive all my social support from outside of them.” Ah, if only it were that easy. Deep trust, vulnerability, and a sense of safety with our close ties are all extremely important for our well-being. With that being said, don’t underestimate the power of weak ties. Engaging with the world around you and noticing who is around you can make a big difference.
Ready to socially engage and work on your well-being? Clinicians at Optimum Joy would love to partner with you through this journey. Please don’t hesitate to contact us to set up an appointment.
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