While our bonds with friends and family are integral to our wellbeing, these little interactions between strangers are important too, it turns out. A recent US study suggests that a diversity of social interactions, including more “weak ties”, can result in better life satisfaction. Harvard researchers found that people can discuss important topics with “lower stakes” connections that are not close friends or family members.
I don’t doubt it for a second. I’m relatively untethered when it comes to weak ties. Originally coming from the North of England where everyone talks to everyone (coupled with having a somewhat nosey disposition!) I still find the cooler, more reserved South difficult to navigate. But, I think my world is all the richer for it.
But there are moments that transcend that for me. The barista that beams at me so hard her eyes disappear as we chat about the weather while she prepares my coffee. Cooing over a cute dog while the owner basks in parental pride. Even the awkward pas-de-deux you do on the footpath – left, then right, then left – as you try to avoid colliding with someone walking in front of you, exchanging sheepish grins.
If ever we realised the value of interactions with others, it was during lockdown. The solitude weighed heavily on me, as it did with so many others. Whilst I desperately missed my friends, I also found myself yearning for those inconsequential conversations you have with shop assistants, baristas and, those random conversations you have with complete strangers you bump into – literally sometimes! After a few weeks, I wondered whether my Deliveroo drivers were backing away from my door due to the two-metre rule or my clear desire to engage them in a conversation about the traffic as my food cooled.
“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” Blanche DuBois breathes at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire. Poor, tragic Blanche should have abandoned that philosophy long ago, given the dearth of kindness she had encountered. In the real world, most of us were brought up with the mantra “never talk to strangers”, a sensible warning for a child, but one that sadly sticks with many of us into adulthood. Sure, we shouldn’t tell our life stories to every person we sit next to at a bus stop, but I’m trying my best to at least flash a smile, with mixed results.
And sometimes, it’s our encounters with strangers that can be the most rewarding, or even change the course of our lives. On a recent workshop with one of my best friends (who incidentally was a weak tie but has subsequently become a very firm fixture in my life), I found myself thrown together with five other women. They were complete strangers, but we quickly found ourselves confessing and discussing things we wouldn’t with our friends and family. I suppose with some topics you don’t want to be a burden to loved ones or repeat yourself ad nauseam. The stakes are somehow lower with a “weak tie”, the judgement perhaps less, and they often offer a fresh perspective. I returned home with a newfound sense of solace and strength. And a realisation – that sometimes, weak ties may evolve into strong ones.