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Why You Need a Network of Low-Stakes, Casual Friendships

By Allie Volpe | July 11, 2019 | The New York Times

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.

Instead of considering these minor brushes of socialization throwaway interactions, cultivating low-stakes relationships can pay dividends. Here’s why you should exchange pleasantries the next time you see a friendly face when you’re out and about.

You’ll feel more connected

The desire to belong and form social attachments is a basic human need, alongside food, sleep and safety. But once we hit 25, the number of friends we have peaks and begins to slowly dwindle over time, according to a 2016 study. As we get older and priorities shift from after-work bowling league to after-school pickup, maintaining a loaded social calendar becomes less essential. Staying socially engaged, then, is integral to personal fulfillment.

In her work examining social interactions, Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer of psychology at the University of Essex, found that maintaining a network of low-stakes connections further enmeshes us in our community, especially after a major move away from family and close friends or the loss of a loved one.

“A lot of us think it’s not worth our time to have those kinds of interactions, that they can’t possibly provide any meaning,” Dr. Sandstrom said. “We’re focused on whatever is next and we don’t stop and take that second to enjoy the moment.”

Taking a few minutes to engage with people we see regularly or joining a group — such as a religious group, a sports team or a hobby meetup — has been shown to increase our satisfaction with life.

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.

However, by cultivating low-level friendships at places we frequent, like church or PTA meetings, we’re able to create valuable mini-networks, said Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship expert.

“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 with 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.”

Your social circles will expand

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.

If conversations with our low-stakes friends are meaningful, we can expect to feel a degree of satisfaction similar to if we’d just spoken to a close friend, said Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas.

“Is it the case that people tend to reserve the most meaningful interactions of their day with their closest relational partners? Yes,” Dr. Hall said. “Is it also the case that if people act in meaningful ways that they can build a close relationship with somebody and feel good about that interaction? Yes.”

Having at least a few acquaintances can connect us with a larger circle of people, which is fantastic news for job hunters. Even if our friends want to help us find a job, the weak ties are often the ones who widen the job-search playing field, Dr. Sandstrom said.

“The people we know that we’re close to tend to know the same things we do and so it doesn’t expand our information,” Dr. Sandstrom said. “The argument is we have more to learn from the people that we don’t already know so well.”

Acquaintances provide a wider worldview

Regularly interacting with people who have different experiences than we do allows us to be more mindful of others’ circumstances, according 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.

But we’re not necessarily hard-wired for meaningful casual encounters. In his research, Dr. Epley found that people often enjoyed striking up conversations with strangers on their commutes to work, but were not likely to do so because they believed the ride would be more pleasant in silence or assumed the other person wouldn’t find the dialogue interesting.

Still, low-stakes friends have a lot to offer, and uncovering surprising tidbits about the regular players in one’s life — discovering that your neighbor is an accomplished dancer, for instance — can add a bit of texture to your day.

“It’s a good thing to spice things up,” Dr. Sandstrom said.

How to cultivate these relationships

Want to relish in a full Rolodex of low-stakes friends? Here’s how you can get the most out of these relationships.

Give yourself permission to talk to familiar faces. Dr. Sandstrom tells participants in her studies to speak to one new person a week. “I think people need to feel like it’s O.K.,” she said. “When you give people permission to talk and they take it, they enjoy it.” 

Shift your attitudes. Since research suggests talking with strangers is a pleasant experience and leaves us feeling fulfilled, there’s no reason to groan when your Uber driver strikes up a conversation. By altering your expectations around the level of enjoyment these conversations provide — both for you and the other person — you’re more likely to engage in the first place.

Mirror an expert’s behavior. When she was growing up, Dr. Sandstrom watched her father interact with virtually everyone he encountered. As an adult, she adopted some of his conversational habits when speaking with acquaintances. Do you have friends who seem to strike up a conversation with everyone in the bar? Observe them: How do they initiate the exchange? What questions do they ask? What topics do they avoid? 

Make the conversations meaningful. If your goal is for these low-stakes friendships to evolve into something more significant, it’s important for these exchanges to be high quality, Dr. Hall said. “When we have that sense of connection with somebody, it accelerates the process by which we try to take action to create a deeper friendship.”

This article was written by Allie Volpe from The New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

Allie Volpe
The New York Times

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