In 1973, Stanford University’s sociology professor Mark Granovetter published a paper titled The Strength of Weak Ties, which became one of the most influential sociology studies of all time. His findings showed how an individual’s well-being mainly depended on the quality of relationships with family and friends but the "quantity" of relationships also matters. He named these connections in the social world as “strong ties” and “weak ties.” The strong ties are those within our inner circle or the people we feel close with and often talk to. On the other hand, the weak ties are those within our outer circle or acquaintances whom we see fleetingly or infrequently.
The importance of weak ties
We can have both strong and weak ties relationships in our normal networks. We can also be weak ties to some of their connections and then strong ties to others. Weak tie relationships can bring opportunities beyond our immediate circles. Think of the purpose of LinkedIn, for example. Weak ties can also bind groups of strong ties together. These conversations with a bus driver, a local barista, a person in line at the store, and the casual work acquaintance contribute to our sense of belonging and happiness but these same encounters have largely gone missing because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The direct impact of Covid-19 on people’s weak ties
Colleen Walsh of the Harvard Gazette refers to it as the value of talking to strangers and nodding acquaintances. However, with the advent of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of Covid-19, it led to the loss of weak ties and it could be having a significant impact on our professional productivity and emotional health.
Harvard’s Grafstein Family Professor of Sociology Mario Luis Small, who studies personal networks, said that because of the pandemic, we don’t have many opportunities to just run into people, like strangers and those we know casually because they’re in the line of our work.
Even if the informal connections that we have are typically brief and take little time in our almost overscheduled lives, they still provide people a way to be appreciated, heard, and seen. They also allow us to express our gratitude. They are the people who often come free of any expectations and are likely to be bridged to other networks and communities. Perhaps, the most important of all, informal connections can help us cope with some of the most pressing challenges in life, Small added.
In his book Someone to Talk to, Small wrote that people may think otherwise of confiding to their strong ties when they need to talk something through but they will willingly, repeatedly, and even without much reflection confide deeply their matters to people they barely know or are not close to. In the US, adults even do this more than half of the time when they have to confide in others.
Why do we prefer to share personal information with weak ties instead of friends or family? Small answered it’s because of empathy. We usually talk to a colleague even though we don’t know them well because we think that they can relate to a concern or work problem. It’s called cognitive empathy or the ability to understand your predicament just as you understand it.
In part, we do that because “we don’t’ want our secrets spreading,” Small said. For instance, we confide first in a stranger sitting next to us in an airplane or our casual acquaintances with news about a health diagnosis or a pregnancy before we tell those who are closest to us. Another example is when one refuses to share something embarrassing to their mother because they don’t want their whole family to know.
Small also said most American adults frequently confide deeply their personal information with a weak tie simply because they were there. In his research, Small asked a group of people to describe the last time they share with someone about a sensitive topic. He also asked these participants whether they were planning to talk to that particular person, not planning to talk to anybody at all, or planning to talk to somebody but not necessarily that individual.
Turn to informal messaging option instead
The result shows that people vent strongly just “because they were there.” However, working from home setups and social distancing comes less chance of in-person encounters with our everyday lives. So, the Grafstein Family Professor of Sociology recommends turning to an informal messaging option instead. An example of this would be an online chat function. We can check our friends and colleagues there. There is no camera and you don’t have to show your face. So, it’s kind of a low-cost way of getting that “opportunity for serendipity.”
Lack of casual interactions: how it undermines our productivity
Ashley Whillans, Harvard Business School Assistant Professor, also shared that the lack of casual interactions can undermine our productivity. There is no more impromptu office conversation. In a recent paper study Whillans co-authored, it was described that weak work ties represent an underestimated source of creativity and sense-making.
She said that most remote workers now find that they attend as many meetings as before. Yet, such structured virtual contact lacks something important, like the impromptu talk in corridors or in office kitchens that help employees feel connected to the work they are doing and their colleagues in the said office.
Gallup engagement survey even found that friendships at work are a key element of employee engagement. It studied remote workers and remote managers, asking them about their feelings from the day before. About 34% of remote employees said they made a lot of progress “yesterday” when they have a best friend at work or have someone to lean on or call in times of stress even if they are working remotely.
Last July, Statista also surveyed 1,037 people in Poland and it shows that 43% of them believed that their workplace is a good place to find friends. Meanwhile, the InterNations surveyed 14,000 people who choose to move abroad and what they make of the countries they live in. The survey considered job security, quality of life, and education to rate the country’s friendliness.
Friendliest and most welcoming countries
A sub-category in the Ease of Settling in Index is the friendliness score. Taiwan ranks as the friendliest country followed by Uganda, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Colombia. Expats in South Korea are positive about the country’s economy. South Korea has a work-life balance score of 41 and ranks the 50th country in terms of friendliness followed by Singapore (51), and Hong Kong (52).
While the term “stranger danger” was coined as a warning to both children and adults, not all strangers are bad people. Harvard research even emphasized how informal connections within our professional and personal lives matter.