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I bumped into someone recently at a mutual friend’s event. We caught up for 30 minutes and then parted ways. I left feeling invigorated and inspired. During this brief chat we were able to brainstorm and discuss new projects we were working on, which in turn provided much needed sense-making and problem solving.
These are the acquaintances I miss from pre-pandemic times. These low-stakes conversations with people you see infrequently are commonly referred to as “weak ties”. They are the people on the periphery of your life, taking up little time in overscheduled lives but with whom conversation flows whenever we bump into them. In contrast, our families and friends are our strong ties.
The term “weak ties” was coined in 1973 by the Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter and his thesis was that for new information and ideas, weak ties are more important to us than strong ones. His study showed that professionals who relied on weaker ties in their job searches had better results than those who relied on close ties.
I first came across the power of weak ties as a new graduate in 2013, when I read The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now by Meg Jay. Before reading this book, my inclination had always been to invest my time only in close friends and connections. Why would I waste time on people I hardly knew?
Jay writes about the importance of leveraging weak ties to help develop our careers: “As we look for jobs or relationships or opportunities of any kind, it is the people we know the least well who will be the most transformative. New things almost always come from outside your inner circle.”
This framing changed my mindset and approach to such relationships. It has served me well and has allowed me to do things I naturally find uncomfortable, such as striking up conversations with strangers, attending events alone or contacting someone I admire. The people I meet this way always have fresh insights and information.
Almost 10 years after reading that book, experience has taught me how vital weak ties are. This is particularly true when it comes to opening the doors to new networks that I would not have ordinarily thought of myself — or that I even knew existed.
I was recently invited to be part of the StartHER investment committee, a new microfund investing in women and under-represented founders. This opportunity came about after an interaction with a weak tie. Through this work I’ll be able to cultivate existing skills and develop new ones that will help to build my career in the long term.
The pandemic took away many things, one being our ability to make new impromptu and fleeting everyday social connections. Missing out on this can hinder career progress and creativity, and increase loneliness, problems that are especially pronounced among younger people in the Millennial and Gen Z groups.
A report called The Age of Alienation from Onward, a conservative think-tank, explores the collapse in community and belonging among young people. It suggests they “are suffering an epidemic of loneliness that, if left unattended, will erode the glue that holds our society together”.
In normal circumstances we naturally replace some old relationships with new ones, but during lockdowns we have not been able to do this at a competitive rate. According to research on social networks and loneliness in the pandemic, our professional and personal networks have shrunk by close to 16 per cent during the pandemic.
Besides the opportunity aspect, a growing body of research suggests that weak ties serve many important functions, including promoting a sense of belonging, boosting both happiness and knowledge.
As we begin to reconnect in person, it is a good moment to make time for casual conversations. The fear of being awkward or embarrassed stops many people from initiating weak ties, but you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take. Besides, what’s the worst that can happen?