In 1970, after ten years as the lead singer with The Supremes, Diana Ross recorded not only her first, but one of her most popular and notable singles, Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand). Fifty years later, our current reality limits our ability to physically touch hands , but it doesn’t mean we can’t touch a life. (Why not listen as you read?)
According to Vivek Murphy, former Surgeon General of the United States, loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in an age of unprecedented social connection, with 40% of the adults in America reporting they feel lonely. Research reveals that loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. This was all prior to COVID-19; now social distancing and isolation are contributing even more to the loneliness epidemic, but the good news is there is a simple action each of us can take daily to fight it; we can reach out!
Think about your typical day this past January. We all had routines that brought stability to our lives. Things just happened; the cashier at the local coffee shop would always acknowledge you when you got a morning coffee, the person at the dry cleaner knew that your shirts got a light starch and were returned on hangers, and the retail clerk who never met your children, but knew you had them because of your purchases, always asked how they are doing. These are our “Casual Acquaintances”, people we really never got to know, but for a myriad of reasons had become a part of our life. They are gone now and we miss them. Why not let them know?
A growing body of research suggests that there are surprisingly powerful benefits to connecting with casual acquaintances – relationships that sociologists call “weak ties.” In their post,“Why You Miss Those Casual Friends So Much”, Gillian Sandstrom (Psychology Lecturer, Univ. of Essex) and Ashley Whillans (Asst. Professor, Harvard Business School), point out that while our friends and family (our strong ties) support us when we are feeling down, our weak ties do no less. We feel seen and appreciated when a server or clerk smiles upon seeing us and knows what our “usual” is.
Weak-tie relationships give us short, informal interactions, which often provide new information and social variety. We are often pleasantly surprised by these moments, and over time we look forward to them. Sandstrom’s research revealed that on a normal day, people interact with somewhere between 11 and 16 weak ties on the way to work, while running errands, or on a break between meetings at the office. Now, as a result of social distancing, and business closures we have lost most of our weak tie relationships. The result? Loneliness, anxiety, and a sense of loss; our wider social network has dwindled. Let’s get it back!
Since our weak-tie interactions aren’t happening spontaneously, we need to initiate them. It may feel a little awkward. In fact, even before Covid-19, it was not our natural inclination to reach out to weak ties, but there were many things we did and didn’t do before, so we can adapt. Sanstrom and Whillans suggest the following:
Use informal modes of communication – Phone calls can feel intrusive, and emails seem impersonal. Instead, try reaching out to a “weak tie” via text message or Facebook. This will allow the other person to respond whenever they can, so you don’t need to worry about reaching out at the wrong time.
Don’t expect a reply – While rejection rates when reaching out to a weak tie are extremely low, we must remember that people are feeling overwhelmed and some may not respond, the point of reaching out to a weak tie is to let the person know that you are thinking about them. Enjoy the knowledge that your message is likely to bring a smile to their day.
Keep it short and simple – Your goal is to let the other person know you are thinking about them, and open to the opportunity to chat, if they want to.
Reach out to people who have affected you in the past – Expressing gratitude is a powerful way to improve mood. If you had a colleague who inspired you, or a mentor who gave you excellent career advice, let them know you are thinking of them. You could also reach out to someone with whom you shared fun times but have lost touch. You’ll both enjoy the memory.
Share something personal about yourself. If you aren’t sure how to open the conversation try, share something personal about yourself — like a photo of your pet or your child doing something cute and/or funny. Sharing aspects of yourself helps to build positive rapport and encourages the other person to reciprocate.
Now, more than ever, the best social interactions are those that tell others you are thinking of them. A few minutes texting or a brief conversation is enough to improve your mood and spread joy within your social network. We might be missing out on our weak tie interactions right now, but it is in our power to create them. All you need to do is reach out!