I recently read an article about ways to be kinder to yourself in 2020, and one strategy was to “cultivate more casual, low stakes friendships”, which the sociologist Mark Granovetter calls “weak ties.”
I have experienced weak ties as a key contributor to my improving happiness and well-being over the past few years. It’s easy to underestimate the impact of these weak ties, but they are a relatively easy way to make a big impact on happiness.
Weak ties are, as you would imagine, numerous and varied. They are the quantity over quality.
Some of my weak ties are:
- A mother who works at the local Sainsbury’s who has kids similar ages to mine, and we have a relationship of chatting when I see her working while I do my shopping, or bumping into each other in the neighbourhood.
- School-gate mothers who I chat to about upcoming holidays in the grocery store.
- People who I see once a week at Parkrun, the extent of conversations with whom are usually about the muddy conditions and 5K times (SO much mud through Autumn and Winter – my trail running shoes perpetually smell of fox spray, mud, and sweat…).
- The street cleaner who always says hi and we sign in pidgin sign language about the weather or how my kids are growing (thanks to him, I’ve tried to learn some basic phrases of BSL).
- Other parents who collect or drop off their young kids around the same time I do at the nursery.
- My once-a-month Book Club group, who I see for about 2 hours a month. We have very little in common as a group except that we are women and most of us have read the same book that month.
- Our lovely bin men, who always take time to smile and wave to my enthusiastic 2-year-old who is mildly obsessed by them. (They also have the best disposition, never irritated even during post-Christmas rubbish collection when everyone has more rubbish, or the time we moved into our house and had SEVEN bags that the previous residents had left plus our own. I apologised profusely but they didn’t bat an eyelid.)
And there are more, the longer I think about it. And I technically live in London, though admittedly on the border of Essex and very much in the suburbs.
The fact is, all of these interactions add up over the course of the day. None of them have much depth. Most of them are pretty one-dimensional – my running ties and I really talk about running. I don’t know what they do or even everyone’s names, but I tend to know their PB times and whether they had a good run or a tough run last Saturday.
So how can such superficial relationships make a difference to happiness?
#1: They help us feel engaged in our communities.
Gallup found five essential elements of well-being. Community well being was defined as the sense of engagement you have with the area where you live. (The other five are career, social, financial, and physical well-being.)
Daily moments of connection, however brief, have meant a feel engaged and involved in my local community. Despite its faults, and there are some, I would struggle to leave my neighbourhood, as I feel a sense of belonging and community here.
Because many of these ties are born from community and place. They form because all of these random people and I call the same town our home, walk the same pavements, shop in the same stores. Sometimes, we have very little else in common. But when I think of my community, I think of all these faces that I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and it makes me feel a little warm and fuzzy to associate all these briefly intersecting lives with my town.
#2: They are frequent and regular.
I’m reminded of quote from Gretchen Rubin, “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”
Daily habits, even small ones, build up over time. I have deeper friendships, but these can take some diary wrangling and therefore don’t happen as often as we would all like. And besides, between work and kids and housework and everything else, I am not able to meet up for a heart to heart with dear friends every day.
But I can smile and say hello, and get a smile and a hello back. I can laugh about my toddler’s self-chosen outfit with another parent at the nursery. There’s something about being known and noticed, like the fellow Parkrunner who runs a similar pace and we try to keep each other going the last stretch, who notices if I’m not there and who I notice if he isn’t there.
#3: They don’t interfere with my individuality whilst promoting diversity in my connections.
After years of anonymity, having moved to a big city like London where no one knew me, it’s nice to feel known and a sense of belonging, especially in a way that doesn’t compromise my individuality in the process. Because they are so light-touch, these relationships don’t require a high degree of agreement on things.
The wide and varied range help me flex by identity. I find a lot of ways to fit, to belong, that don’t require me to bite my tongue. Sometimes deeper friendships I find can be more challenging, as we often click because we share so much in common and we get deeper and deeper until we find those things where we don’t click. That is of course fine, friends don’t need to be carbon copies, but I find I get sucked into thinking someone is ‘like-minded’ until I find the thing where we aren’t like-minded.
That doesn’t happen with these weak ties because they are somewhat one-dimensional. I can be a leftist Quaker mother with young kids who runs in each of these spaces, and I get a smile and a chat and a sense of connection with people from all walks of life.
How do weak ties develop?
I’m not an expert, but in my experience, my weak ties have evolved, often fairly quickly, but simply being friendly. Maybe the biggest leap of faith is being the one to acknowledge the other person.
So one weak tie I have is a woman I see all over the neighbourhood. I’ve realised over time that she’s a home carer, so she rides her folding bicycle to all of her clients. The borough is her neighbourhood. We became what I would call weak ties because I smiled and said hello when I saw her, acknowledging the fact we were passing each other on the pavement every morning as I walked my eldest son to school. She started saying hello back. Then when we would pass each other in another part of the borough, we would smile and wave and share a little moment of surprise, like a mental unspoken conversation (“Ah, we’re seeing each other in a slightly different context! What are you doing here?”).
Another is a parkrunner who was wearing same charity running kit as me. It led to a conversation about the cause and now we chat about it most Saturdays while we wait for the run to start.
Some concrete, practical examples of how you can build weak ties:
- Make eye contact and smile. Acknowledge the other person if you see them most days. It’s super simple and the worst that happens is the other person blanks you.
- Pay a (genuine) compliment. It’s lovely to receive a compliment, so if you have something you can honestly compliment, do it!
- Have a laugh. A crack about the bad weather, a humorous eye roll at the tantrum your kid is having in his buggy, a joke about the glamorous life you share that finds you both in Lidl of a Saturday morning, whatever it is.
- Talk about your predicament. Difficult running conditions? Comment on it to a fellow runner as you pass each other.
One of the best things about weak ties is that you can do these straight away, every day, and start to reap the benefits pretty quickly. It’s a lot faster and easier than finding a bosom friend, or a passion in life. So much so, it’s easy to underestimate their power.