Has there been any month in my life before when I’ve not met a single new person? In the last couple of months, the only folk I’ve seen have been people I know: my husband, our neighbors. In pre-virus days I’d have met new people in the pub (this is Glasgow; we talk to one another here), at work events or at friends’ parties. I’d have chatted to the newsagent, the bus driver or the person at the checkout.
These more removed contacts are called weak ties, in sociology speak, and they are the people social distancing has removed from our lives. There is no socialising. Time in shops is under pressure and you have to be as quick as possible, with the humanity removed by masks and distance. Many of us might think that’s not much of a loss: but the truth couldn’t be starker. Because weak ties, it turns out, are essential in good times – and in the coronavirus era, they are more crucial than ever.
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How so? Well, the theory has its origins in a paper called The Strength of Weak Ties published in 1973 by Stanford professor Mark Granovetter, who argued that while strong ties (family, friends, colleagues) are fundamental to our lives, it’s the more distant connections (acquaintances, people you strike up a conversation with at a party, friends of friends) that are fundamental to our career and holistic development. These connections, Granovetter suggested, provide us with huge opportunities: they are the route in our lives to new projects, new jobs and new ideas.
And that, argues Professor Stephanie Morgan of Kent Business School, is precisely why they are so important right now: because they bring the new thoughts, different ideas and new ways of thinking that you probably won’t get from your inner circle, but may need to move on from the seismic changes of the pandemic. Weak links, she says, “are the fertile ground in all our lives”.
Walkers in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow, 5 April 2020
Social distancing has removed many of these weak ties from our lives, at a time when we most need them. Photograph: Chris McNulty/Alamy Live News
So the irony is that the very thing we’re missing right now is something we’re more in need of than ever, or soon will be. “So many people are jobless, or facing joblessness, and it’s weak ties who say: ‘have you considered this? Or, someone I know might need you to do that …’”
On the face of it, social media could fill the gap. But don’t be fooled. “What most people do online is stick with people they know, or whose views and outlook they agree with,” says Morgan. In other words, we don’t get the most valuable benefit of weak links, which is that a random or distant connection brings the possibility of a mental shake-up, an unseen challenge or an opportunity to see the world in a different way.
Organisational psychologist Alan Redman agrees. “With social media you’re in a filter bubble: you only see stuff you agree with. So although, for example, Twitter is all about weak ties, they’re weak ties you’ve curated yourself – and those don’t bring the same benefits to your life.”
The original weak ties research focused on their value to our professional lives but, says Redman, it certainly doesn’t end there. “There are many benefits at an individual psychological level: being in contact with weak links boosts your sense of life happiness, and a more diverse social network gives you more exposure to diverse ideas and will benefit your own flexibility of thinking.
Nathan Heflick, senior psychology lecturer at Lincoln University, agrees. In addition, he says, weak ties are also important “because they provide a sense of routine, that life is proceeding as expected. People like stability. [And] they also provide a sense of connection in themselves. Weak ties, in my view, are like foods we eat all the time which we enjoy. Those crisps and chips and bread maybe aren’t juicy steak or delicious salmon, but they are still essential – we’d be alarmed if bread wasn’t there, even if all the other food in the world was widely available.”
Weak ties bring new thoughts, different ideas and new ways of thinking we may need to move on from the seismic changes of the pandemic.
Weak ties bring new thoughts, different ideas and new ways of thinking we may need to move on from the seismic changes of the pandemic. Photograph: Iain Masterton/Alamy Live News
Psychologist Lucy Atcheson, who specialises in working with clients with anxiety and depression, cautions that while lockdown is making our lives smaller, we have to be careful not to become too comfortable. Weak links, she points out, represent the disruptive elements in our lives that can give us a different, and more creative, vision. “We hear a lot about cutting toxicity out of our lives at the moment, but I think we need to make the distinction with weak ties – despite the word, this certainly isn’t about a negative force.”
Unexplored potential – exactly the sort of possibility often raised by an encounter with a weak tie – could, Atcheson points out, be gold dust in the weeks ahead. “It’s what we need to recover both psychologically and financially when this is over. What we need to be doing now is precisely what isn’t happening, which is reaching out to weak links [while observing social distancing, of course]. This is a time to be looking at your life in a new way.”
She suggests contacting friends of friends, by phone or through social media, and being aware that these links could be as important as anything else in your life right now. “With the sameness of each day at the moment it’s easy to feel optimism and excitement drifting away – so the new energy a weak tie can bring can be hugely significant.”
Morgan suggests trying to use social media in a broader way. “It requires some thought and work if it’s going to bring dividends,” she says. “Look at things outside your immediate circle – don’t [virtually] only go to places you know, and people who have the same ideas and experiences as you.” It’s a good time, she says, to reflect widely on your life and career opportunities ahead. “You might think, I could move into a different career – and then you might want to reach out to people who are already in that field.”
The good news, says Redman, is that while many of us aren’t exploiting or connecting with weak links at the moment, as a phenomenon they are very resilient. In other words, when the pandemic wanes we’ll find them out there exactly as they were before. “They’re the green shoots ready to grow back straight away,” he says. “But also, when we eventually get back to what’s going to be ‘normal’ life, perhaps we might notice how much we’ve missed our weak links. Maybe this will give us more appreciation of how beneficial they are to our lives.”