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The Strength of Weak Ties

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

The pandemic has revealed, inflicted, imposed and taught many things.

One particular aspect about being human which came to the fore - it usually sounds rather clichéd - is that we're deeply social creatures.

Our desire for social connection has been highlighted by our strong resistance to any and every kind of social / physical contact limitation which have been imposed upon us to help curb the spread of this highly infectious virus.

Have you found some of your close relationships under strain in the past year? Have you felt 'un-heard' by your partner and, or, close connections? Have you perhaps suffered emotionally due to a felt sense of decreased social and emotional support?

You might be surprised to hear that you're not alone.

Excessive amounts of time spent 'in each other's faces' due to hard lockdowns and or self-isolation could, quite naturally, put our close connections under strain. We could (and often do) grow tired of each other as our connection to other parts of our social support networks can't be readily accessed and engaged.

One of the first social losses we've suffered during the pandemic is what researchers call our 'weak ties'. Weak ties refer to our social connections outside of our immediate family and friendship circles.

In my case it would be my 'connection' to my barista who knows my favourite drink, who engages in a bit of small talk and who writes: 'John - our star' on my take-away cup. For you it might be your hairdresser / barber, nail technician, gym partner, local grocer or barman.

Researchers found that when we lose connection to our weak ties (as the pandemic has imposed upon us) our close connections come under severe strain. It appears rather surprising how much social support that rant to your hairdresser may actually offer you in terms of emotional support.

I recall how spending the Chinese New Year holiday alone in Kuala Lumpur affected me emotionally. I used to go to the same Thai restaurant every evening where I'd receive salutations by name from the chef and the waiter and exchange a couple of words and phrases in Bengali. When all the restaurants were closed for the Chinese New Year I found myself completely isolated (8,000 km from home). I remember falling into an almost immediate spell of low mood and increased anxiety.

Researchers have found that our weak ties do a world of good for our psychological health. In losing our weak-tie network we lose a great deal of emotional support and opportunities of being listened to in more simple ways (compared to navigating the complexity of our close relationships - strong ties - which involve expectations of reciprocity).

Research literature also explain that people often feel that discussions with weak ties are less judgmental, stigmatising and less patronising than discussions with close ties.

The paradox is that in these times when we've actually needed the support benefits of our weak ties, we had less access to them and finding support has become more challenging.

It's helpful to recognise who our weak ties are and how to access our weak tie networks in creative ways during these times where social engagements are limited. It's good to remember that the following people also comprise of our weak-tie network and that they're often ready to help provide support: "These ... often include clergy, counselors, or members of face-to-face and/or online support groups."

Discussing emotionally-laden topics with close ties might often involve dancing around a mine-field. Thus, engaging weak-tie networks (where possible) can be a helpful exactly because of a lack of emotional attachment. For this reason weak-ties are also more willing to engage more 'risky' topics than close ties.

One might logically conclude that it might then be a good idea to 'strengthen' one's weak ties, but the paradox is that it's best to keep your weak ties 'weak', but to find creative ways of engaging them during times of limited social contact.

Engaging your weak-tie network might involve calling a support line like the Samaritans (in the U.K. / SADAG in South Africa) when you find yourself in need of a listening ear, or increased emotional support. Booking a conversation with a trained listener at the Institute for Creative Conversation (i4cc) might also be helpful if you need a safe space within which to share.


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