Why loose acquaintances enrich our lives

Phenomenon of the pandemic: No chat with the next door in the gym, no teasing the bartender. Loose acquaintances have been on hold for months. What does it do to us?

The longing for distant places and travel has been described many times in Corona times. But in some quiet minutes, something completely different comes to mind: Drinking a beer in a dingy pub and chatting superficially with the barman.

Have a little chat in the coffee kitchen with someone who is not a direct colleague. Dance to a beauty in the noisy club and flirt a little roaring. Or: What is the inflated person doing out of the gym who likes to talk about protein-rich diets at the moment?

Weak relationships refresh everyday life

Nobody makes a zoom call with all these people or gives them a call. Often you don't even know the name, at least not the full one. With the exception of online friendships and chance meetings in the supermarket or at the weekly market, the pandemic has almost completely cut short acquaintances. And many are just noticing: You can miss them a lot.

"Weak relationships bring new ideas and facts into our everyday lives," says sociologist Markus Gamper from the University of Cologne. "We have strong relationships with people who are similar to us, who have similar everyday lives, to people who read the same thing, watch the same series and films."

Low expectation

But with that you run the risk of stewing in your own juice all the time. Through "bridges", ie looser networks, "new, exciting, simply non-everyday things" come into life. "We need variety and new information."

With loose acquaintances, the mutual expectations are naturally lower than with close relationships, says Gamper, which is also beneficial. The network analysis expert contributed to the sociological textbook “Social Networks and Health Inequalities”.

Close friendships are important for emotional support, but looser ones are not unimportant, says Gamper. "Strong and weak relationships each have their own uses."

The number of contacts is not critical

The sociological theories about networks come from America. The sociologist Ronald S. Burt has shown, for example, that employees are particularly creative when they maintain informal contacts on the job through so-called structural holes.

These “structural holes” are mainly departmental and functional boundaries. It doesn't depend on the number of contacts, but on building bridges and networking with people outside of your own team.

Four components of a relationship

Another important network theorist is the sociologist and economist Mark Granovetter, who published the essay "The Strength of Weak Ties" almost 50 years ago - in 1973.

Among other things, he defined the strength of relationships according to four components: the amount of time people spend together, the degree of emotional intensity, mutual trust (intimacy) and the type of mutual (reciprocal) assistance. In all of this, weak relationships should not be underestimated.

For decades, psychologists have focused primarily on the important function of close relationships, i.e. family, romantic partnership and deep friendship. But then the realization came that neighbors in the hallway or at the garden fence and baristas in the café can also be important for well-being.

Talking to strangers can make you happy

The social psychologists Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn found through several studies that people with a higher number of loose acquaintances tended to be happier in their lives overall. The more interaction they had with such supposed strangers, the happier they were.

Under the motto # Talking2Strangers (i.e. talking to strangers), Sandstrom, who works at the University of Essex in Colchester, England, strongly advocates adapting one's own behavior. Deliberately talking to casual acquaintances every day can help mental health.

Sandstrom's view takes a new look at the increasingly bad mood in the Corona republic in view of closed bars, restaurants, fitness studios and clubs. So, for the time being, only small talk in the grocery store, drugstore or bus remains - of course, carefully with a mask and at a distance. But at least! The renowned psychologist says: "That brings so much joy."

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