How Small Talk With Almost-Strangers Profoundly Affects Your Happiness
Research shows weak-tie relationships can be just as important as strong-tie relationships for our mental health.
Guille Faingold / Stocksy
“Would you mind putting all of the heavy stuff in one bag and all of the light stuff in another?” I ask the grocery bagger at Whole Foods.
“Sure, no problem,” he says. “Are you okay?”
I tell him I’m recovering from shoulder surgery and can't lift more than three pounds with my right arm, and he insists on carrying both bags to my car. As we walk into the crisp Chicago air, he tells me he recently herniated a disc, and we chat about our experiences recovering from unexpected surgery.
As I’m chopping vegetables later that evening, my favorite true crime podcast on in the background, I notice myself smiling about the pleasant afternoon I had. Because I’m a freelance writer, I spend ample time alone each day. The prior month spent in a sling recovering from surgery felt particularly isolating. On top of all that, I manage generalized anxiety disorder that’s often centered around my relationships, so the silences felt extra heavy.
On that day in particular, I didn’t see my husband, friends, or family members, but I still felt upbeat. I’d grabbed a soy matcha latte from my new favorite coffee shop in the morning. I recapped an episode of the Netflix's “You," with my physical therapist. I made small talk with the cashier at Whole Foods, who I discovered is also a writer. And there was the congenial conversation with the grocery bagger.
It turns out these small, seemingly insignificant interactions were enough to lift my mood and help me feel less isolated. Our social lives consist of what psychologists call both “weak ties” and “strong ties.” A strong tie is your spouse, parent, sibling, best friend, coach or colleague, while a weak tie is an acquaintance of sorts—someone like your barista, your yoga instructor, the cashier at your favorite grocery store, or the woman who waxes your eyebrows.
“How I distinguish a weak tie from a stranger is that there’s mutual recognition,” says Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer at the University of Essex who has studied the effects of weak ties. “You don’t have to know the other person’s name, but you have to have seen them and know who they are.”
Sandstrom co-authored a 2014 study titled, “Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties,” which emphasized the significance of these underrated connections. “These kinds of minimal interactions with people make us feel good—like we’re connected to people,” she says. “It makes us feel more trust in the world and more of a sense of community. I think that’s something humans really need. We need to feel like we’re part of something—that we belong. And we suffer all sorts of negative consequences when we don’t feel that.” Loneliness—which, of course, is different than actually being physically alone—can have a deleterious effect on our mental and physical health. Feeling isolated, it turns out, can have a similar impact on our lifespan as smoking or being obese.
We can’t be with our strong ties all the time, Sandstrom says, and relying on them too much to fill all of our needs can be detrimental to our well-being, as it can make us codependent and too reliant on just one or two people for our happiness. “It’s better to sort of call on different people to fill different needs,” she says. “And I think these weak-tie relationships are something we underestimate a bit.”
Weak ties are crucial to more than just our social lives; they can also be beneficial to our careers. A 1973 study (in which Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter initially coined the terms "weak ties" and "strong ties") found that weak ties were actually more important than strong ties for one group in particular: job seekers. He argued that although strong ties will be more motivated to help you, they’re part of your inner social circle and therefore can’t expand your options. “Weak ties are those bridges to whole other sets of people that you aren’t connected to,” Sandstrom says. “They are going to be the ones who have that novel information that can help you.” This seminal research holds strong, my experts say. Interacting with casual acquaintances opens up our networks tenfold.
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Essentially, these acquaintances play an important part in your overall development. They might not even be noticeable to you, though, unless you’re asked to think about them.
Sandstrom offers this example: Have you ever moved to a new city? In addition to not having friends or family in the area, you might feel lost at first. Part of this disorientation is likely due to a lack of weak ties. After all, you lost a whole network of people—everyone from the woman you always saw walking your dog to the barista who knows your complicated order by heart.
“These are tiny relationships, but I think when you lose all of them at once, which happens when you move to a new place, they add up, and you can tell they were making a difference,” Sandstrom says.
For those who feel like they’re missing this type of connection, it’s easy to begin developing weak ties—certainly easier and less contrived than trying to find a new best friend. Start by paying close attention to what’s happening around you, Sandstrom says. Is there someone who nods to you in recognition at the gym? A cashier at the grocery store who you see every day?
Once you’ve identified a situation of mutual recognition, strike up a conversation. Sandstrom says the easiest way to do this is either through a compliment or by commenting on something you both have in common, such as working out at the same gym or having a dog. Think of a natural way to bring something obvious up, kind of like thinking (positive things) out loud.
If you're having new-kid-at-school jitters, keep in mind that any fears you have of being rejected are most likely unfounded. “Research shows that people rarely reject us,” Sandstrom says, adding that there’s something called the “linking gap” in which we underestimate how interesting strangers think we are. “We kind of get stuck in our heads and think, Why did I say that? and we worry that the other person couldn’t have possibly enjoyed that conversation. But actually, they enjoy it more than you think.”