How many people can you text in 15 minutes?
This is a little game I play every month or so. I do it for two important reasons. One, it keeps me engaged with my friends and family who also lead busy lives. And two, it gives me a social high for the day.
By sending out a barrage of quick “thinking of you” style texts, I know that the recipients feel appreciated. Who doesn’t like being thought of randomly? And when I get the responses over the course of the day, I get a renewed sense of feeling connected to my tribe. I feel a part of something.
Socializing Makes Us Feel Good
That feeling is, in fact, a dopamine and endorphin surge. When we connect socially with others we are rewarded biologically with these feel-good hormones that encourage more of that activity. As it is, science has confirmed that investing in social relationships has a positive impact on our physical, mental, and social health; well-being; and longevity.
But for those who deal with loneliness and social isolation, this news may be salt in a painful wound. One may presume that without close relationships, his or her life will remain socially void.
But data suggests otherwise. In fact, research has concluded that any and all socialization can offer positive benefits. Even the small seemingly inconsequential interactions with strangers and acquaintances can help us feel less lonely.
Weak Ties Expand Our Social Circle
Throughout our days we interact with many different kinds of people. Some may be our closest friends while others may be little more than strangers. When assessing our social well-being, we typically just focus on our closest relationships because they offer the most comfort and familiarity.
But there’s value as well in the casual social interactions with peripheral members of our social networks. Sociologists term these relationships “weak ties”. Conventionally we call them acquaintances. Their participation in our lives exposes us to far more people and therefore helps us perceive our social circle as being broader and more diverse. Think of the neighbor two doors down, the parents of your kids’ friends, or the other dog owners in the neighborhood.
They are the people we exchange pleasantries with and probably some brief conversations as we go about our day. These relationships, without further investment, usually remains on the surface but still contribute to the social variety of our days.
They can give us a sense of being socially engaged without much effort. And because most of these encounters are rather pleasant, they can help elevate our mood long after the conversations are over.
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Unexpected Benefits of Causal Connections
Aside from the little pick-me-up we get from a quick chat, there are other good reasons to give attention to these acquaintance relationships. If you appreciate the power of six degrees of separation, you realize that there’s loads of potential in these loose ties. You can exponentially expand your access to resources and other people by leaning into these connections.
“By cultivating low-level friendships with the people that routinely fill our days, we’re able to create valuable mini-networks,” says to Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship expert. They can broaden your resource pool well beyond what could be sourced from your intimate social circle. For many, this is how new job opportunities present themselves. It’s the guy at church who turns you on to a hot job lead.
Besides the practical benefits of career opportunities or accountant recommendations, tapping into acquaintance relationships can expose you to entirely new worlds. From being introduced to new hobbies and interests to completely different points of view. You begin to discover just how varied and interesting the world is. Plus you come to cross paths with people you probably wouldn’t have found on your own which helps cultivate feelings of empathy for others.
Loose Ties Can Turn Into Tight Relationships
I have a neighbor Dianne who I nickname “The Mayor” because she has a gift for leaning into acquaintance relationships and turning them into something more. From her web of connections, that all started out as mere introductions, she has created an enviable network. She has introduced me to all my other neighbors, an award-winning author, and the behind-the-scenes world of horse racing. At the very least, her cache of contacts makes her a very interesting person.
If you take Dianne’s wise approach you can grow your existing network into something much bigger and more rewarding. All friendships have to start somewhere and for most, they have to pass through the acquaintance phase anyway. When you start to look at these loose ties as potential friends or terrific resources, it creates the motivation to push outside your social comfort zone.
How to Grow Your Acquaintance Relationships
So how do you go about pushing on the boundaries of your social circle? First, start looking at it a more holistically. Take a closer look at all the people who cross your path on a regular basis. Even the ones you don’t give much thought to beyond your momentary exchanges.
The store clerk, the exercise instructor, the mail carrier.
Here are some suggestions to help you lean into these relationships that sit on the periphery.
1 - Be Okay with Talking with Strangers
Unless you don’t leave the house you’ll probably cross paths with strangers all throughout your day. This can be an excellent way to strike up low-stakes, quick conversations. This can be when standing in line for lunch or heading to the fourteen floor in the elevator. Try to exercise your bravery by starting up a quick exchange. Make a comment, ask a question, solicit a suggestion.
Even though in such situations you probably won’t have further interaction beyond that one, you will be exercising your social muscles. You may come across some introverts who don’t wish to reciprocate the dialogue but you may come across some really interesting people. Remember, a conversation never started has nowhere to go.
2 - Establish a Routine
We’re all creatures of habit so let that work in your favor. Chances are you mingle with the same people at the coffee shop, the spin class, your kid’s pick-up line. Take advantage of these opportunities to engage in idle chit chat.
Hi, I seem to see you here every morning. It’s probably time I introduce myself. I’m Jessica.
The initial conversations will probably pertain to the topic at hand but with repeated exposure you can explore further. Have curiosity about people. Find out about their families, work, hobbies, upbringing. From such inquiry you may find you have more things in common. This could serve as a natural segue to higher quality conversation in a different venue.
3 - Leverage Existing Relationships
If you would prefer a more comfortable route, leverage the relationships through the people you know. Friends of friends, family of friends, friends of family, etc. I have met some great people this way.
Call on your existing social ties to be “friends matchmakers”. Ask loved ones to introduce you to people they think you would get along well with. If asked why you’re interested in doing such a thing, just be honest. You want to meet some new and interesting people. That’s a commendable reason enough.
4 - Make Connections Through Technology
There is no denying that relationships through technology are now commonplace. Even if you aren’t on social media, you probably text or email others as an efficient means to keep in touch.
Be more systematic in your communication and schedule regular outreaches. Reach out just to say Hi or to ask about the new job or to get an update on their wedding plans. The gesture is always appreciated and it will give you the feeling that your bucket of friends and acquaintances is full and alive.
At the same time, if you are on social media, think of all the loose ties in your network. See how you can lean into some of the online exchanges you have with others through message threads for instance. I have heard of plenty of examples where online interaction evolved into IRL friendships. But it does require the initial effort. Be the one to do it.
5 - Seek Out Face Time with Others
There are myriad opportunities to mingle with strangers who can become acquaintances and perhaps eventually friends. Volunteer for your favorite cause, join a sports league, take a class. Find your outlet to be around others repeatedly for a particular purpose. While you’ll have a task at hand you’ll be mingling with people who speak your language and will probably be generally supportive of meeting new people.
Interacting with others that sit just outside of your social circle are untapped resources that most people never pursue. Lost opportunity! With a bit of effort on your part, you can explore the possibilities of these loose ties in your life.
You’ll get the dopamine and endorphin hit which will reward your bravery for putting yourself out there. And as you become more acquainted with these people and get to know them better, they’ll come to expect your participation and presence in their lives as well.
Think through your routine. Who do you interact with repeatedly that you probably don’t give much attention to? Start small but come up with two or three people you wish to get to know better. Make a plan for how you can approach these people. Ask a question. Seek some advice. Share something relevant. Use the following FORM acronym to jump-start an exploratory conversation.
How do you typically feel after a brief acquaintance encounter? Positive, negative, neutral? Have you ever thought about it?
Please share your thoughts in the comments below.