One of the many lessons we were forced to learn from the pandemic was the importance of social interaction, and the devastation of social isolation. And even outside of our intimate relationships with friends and family, weak social ties are also necessary to our sense of wellbeing. I know how it easy it is to close yourself off from interactions from strangers. (I mean, as a woman, I’ve been conditioned to do just that for my own safety.) However, building tiny relationships with the peripheral members of our social networks has a powerful impact.
Here’s how to start embracing these often overlooked interactions, and how they can make your life a little more joyful.
Why you need small social interactions
Recent research shows that even weak social interactions—like a quick exchange with a barista or a stranger on the sidewalk—contribute positively to our wellbeing. Behind these studies are psychologist Gillian Sandstrom, whose work aims to combat social isolation. On an episode of the podcast Hidden Brain, she further explains that people who seek out weak social ties ultimately feel more life satisfaction and have a greater sense of belonging.
It’s easy to live life with your head down, avoiding the far ends of your social network, like coworkers you never chat with or neighbors whose names you don’t remember. You may not perceive your life as lacking, but by avoiding such tiny interactions, you could be robbing yourself of potential happiness.
How to build tiny relationships
I’m the type of person who can go tell jokes into a microphone in front of a crowd, but will get too nervous to ask the barista for the wifi password. Previous research on social interaction suggests that the pessimism we feel toward talking to strangers is largely overblown. We’re concerned about making a fool of ourselves, when in reality, chatting with a stranger on the subway or taking the time to get to know your cashier’s name is a mutually beneficial experience for all parties—with some important caveats, of course. Here are some tips to get started building tiny relationships in your life, so that we can all feel a little less lonely.
Look at the periphery of your social network. Sandstrom defines weak ties as when you and an acquaintance have mutual familiarity. Think about your favorite coffee shop, your grocery store, your gym—every day we cross paths with some of the same people. Take the brave first step to acknowledge that you and a stranger likely recognize each other. Introduce yourself so that you’re no longer strangers, and now have mutual familiarity.
Look up. Literally! Consider taking out your ear buds, looking up from your phone, and smiling at others while you go about your day. You might start identifying familiar faces to introduce yourself to later, you might be making yourself available to someone who needs directions, or you might simply feel less lonely from a small wave or nod from a stranger.
Don’t be creepy. Sadly, you have to think through the dynamic of who you’re trying to connect with here. Like I mentioned at the top, most women have been conditioned not to engage in conversation with strange men. That’s just reality. Respect people’s boundaries and don’t force conversation with someone who clearly wants to be alone.
Listen to your gut. Similar to the above: If you’re concerned that your small talk is making the other person feel in danger (or putting you in danger!), listen to that instinct. However, if what’s holding you back is a fear of awkwardness or embarrassment, then push yourself to beat that anxiety.
And hey, if you’re someone who wants to avoid unwanted interaction, then keep those headphones on and stare at the ground. But if you feel safe asking a stranger what their name is, then go for it. It might just bring the two of you a little more joy in your days.