The social strength of 'weak' ties.
By building our understanding of loneliness, we can help ourselves and others to manage the feeling.
Do you feel uplifted when you exchange a smile with a stranger in the street? How about making small talk about the weather with the person behind the till at your local shop? Or maybe you wave a hello to the neighbour across the street whenever you see them because it feels natural and like a nice thing to do. You might not know these people very well, or even know their names, but these ‘weak ties’ can have a significant effect on our happiness and sense of belonging.
Strong vs. weak
Strong social ties are characterised by people we have a deep affinity with a shared history and life experiences; family, friends and work colleagues. Weak ties are more acquaintances, familiar faces or even friendly strangers we might share a moment with (see above). Weak ties might be a little talked about concept but they’ve been around for decades. Influential sociologist Mark Granvetter first wrote about the power of these seemingly small, superficial interactions in the employment world. He found that far from being insignificant, weak ties are a bridge to new networks, people and information.
Weak ties are important for how socially connected we feel too. Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex, found that participants with larger networks of weak ties tended to be happier overall. On days when a participant had a greater number of casual interactions with weak ties: e.g. a barista in a local coffee shop, a neighbour, a member of a yoga class or a fellow dog walker – they experienced more happiness and a greater sense of belonging. The more clubs, associations or teams a person belonged to: i.e. sports teams, local choir groups or book clubs, the more they felt a sense of security and meaning.
Why weak ties are good for loneliness
The notion of weak ties can be especially useful and reassuring if you are experiencing loneliness. We can often feel like we are missing out and we feel under pressure to make good friends or find the partner of our dreams. But sometimes that’s just not possible, or maybe we’re not very socially confident or feel intimidated at the thought of it. Or maybe we don’t want to be a companion or to find a confidante but would just like some more company or positive interactions. Building up your daily quota of weak ties is an easy and natural way to increase our sense of wellbeing and most importantly, feel like we are being acknowledged and seen.
Of course, lockdown has severely reduced our amount of weak ties and everyday chitchats. Plus the use of masks - essential as they are - means we often can’t see people smiling and being friendly. But with restrictions gradually reducing and nicer weather on the way (hooray) there are ample opportunities to increase our weak ties while still staying safe and operating within government guidelines.
So how can you start strengthening your social muscle?
Start new rituals and routines
Go on a daily walk along the same route at the same time - you’re more likely to see the same faces. If physical activity is a challenge, is there a bench you can regularly go and sit on? Or think about new ‘social spots’ you can create – could you sit in your front garden and say hello to passers-by? Take a book or a magazine if you feel a bit self-conscious: even enjoying a cup of tea by a window could open you up to more interactions.
Look for weak ties you'd be interested in
Be proactive. Are there any local groups or activities you’d like to join? Look at noticeboards outside the library, community centre and local shops. Ask friends or look for recommendations on social networks.
Put your own interests out there
Maybe you want to find a new walking companion, a phone buddy or a local community gardening club to join. Mention it to neighbours, acquaintances or even any support workers you might have and ask them to keep an ear out for you. Or else reach out to like-minded individuals online. Facebook’s community is very engaged and somewhere like Next Door is a great place to connect with local people for information and recommendations, and Meetup is also a good way to meet like-minded people.
Turn strong ties into weak ones
Are you missing friends and family and fed up with not seeing them in real life? Don’t get disheartened. We can also engage in more weak-tie-style interactions with our strong ties i.e.: checking to see how people are without engaging them in a full conversation. The goal is to let others know you are thinking of them without asking for lots of their time and energy (or yours).
“Sometimes it’s harder to talk to people we know well because those conversations come with an emotional burden,” says Gillian Sandstrom from the University of Essex. “Weak-tie conversations are lighter and less demanding.” They can also provide us with some much-needed novelty. Nishita lives alone and every morning she and another friend who also lives by herself have started sending each other an emoji. “It’s a way of just checking in and saying ‘hi,” she says. “Even though it’s such a small thing it’s really nice to know that someone else is thinking about you as you start your day, and I can do the same for her.”
Don't be scared to start chatting to people again
Covid has made us all understandably nervous about spontaneous interaction. But we can still stop and have a socially distanced chat in the street. We might think that people don’t want to talk but remember - most of us have really missed social interaction and would probably love to have a chat.
Research has shown that we were nicer to each other during the pandemic and more likely to engage in random acts of kindness. The Travelodge survey of 2000 people found that during the Covid-19 pandemic, 56% of Britons have experienced on average three acts of unexpected kindness from a stranger, and it is the simplest gestures that touched them the most, including a stranger saying “Hello” whilst out walking, being greeted with a smile and a “How are you today?” from a delivery driver and a lost forgotten friend getting in touch to see how they were doing.
The report also revealed that 42% of adults stated that when a stranger does something nice unexpectedly it makes their day extra special and it encourages them to do something nice for someone too. We’ve all missed each other so let’s start chatting again!
One thing at the heart of Marmalade’s philosophy of building a friendlier, more open society is the importance of everyday or ‘old fashioned’ courtesies. Many of the people who Marmalade supports are from the generation where it was the norm to engage in social niceties. Older people are one of the demographics most likely to experience loneliness but ironically they are the ones we could perhaps learn the most from: putting our phones down, getting offline, taking the time to say hello and talk to people. Loneliness levels have risen sharply across all demographics since the pandemic. Everyday courtesies are a good way to rebuild those important social bridges without any real exertion or effort.
“If you look at the older generation, you are more likely to see some of the more traditional, courteous values,” says Marmalade’s founder Amy Perrin. Now it can feel like many of us are always busy, rushing from one thing to the next, head down on our phone. “It’s very nice when you’re walking along and someone acknowledges you,” Amy says. “If you go into a shop and someone asks how you are. Maybe we need to just remember that that is a really nice feeling and that we could do more of it.”
Marmalade Trust's top 7 everyday courtesies
Smile and say hello to people
Stop for a chat
Find commonalties – i.e. the weather
Hold the door open for others
Be interested in other people
Help someone out – help the person with a pushchair up 4 flights of stairs
Tip your hat (even if it’s imaginary!)
Mark Granovetter ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’ 1873
Gillian M Sandstrom and Elizabeth W Dunn ‘Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties’ 2014
Travelodge 'Britons are tapping into the power of kindness to help them get through Covid-19.