THR Web Features   /   May 25, 2021

No Mere Acquaintances

On the inestimable value of casual contacts and connections

Richard Hughes Gibson

A few months ago, my spouse jokingly told our kids and me that she needed to see other people. She wasn’t trying to shame us for being poor housemates (even if we had been at times). Rather, a year of social distancing had revealed to her the importance of casual exchanges to the preservation of her peace of mind. Because of health concerns, we ran a very tight ship until the adults were vaccinated, our social world whittled down to the classroom (we’re both professors) and the home, which has doubled for the last year as our children’s schoolhouse. As a result, our average day consisted of shuttling back and forth between workplace 1 and workplace 2.

Alison (my spouse) was lamenting the daily lack of passing interactions, such as chitchat with baristas, conversations with colleagues in the hallway, chance meetings with old students on campus and old neighbors around town. She was longing for easy conversations, a quick swap of updates, some observations about a new book or drama, a shared sigh over the weather, and the simple social transactions that took place within them—a show of geniality, trading information, renewing a relationship—without incurring additional burdens. What she missed, she explained, were acquaintances.

When the pandemic began, a number of opinionistas reported that being forced to stay home brought unexpected benefits. Number one on seemingly everyone’s list was time with loved ones, particularly children. Having thwarted our collective penchant for busyness, the pandemic appeared an opportunity to reconnect with our nearest and dearest, and perhaps even to reevaluate the decisions that led to the need for reconnection.

Shifting so much attention to the center points of our social circles hasn’t been cost-free, however. It has also meant, as my spouse found, that many of us have had significantly less—perhaps even minimal—contact with our second-, third-, and fourth-tier friends for more than a year. In particular, we’ve lost contact with those friends and associates whom we tend to see in specific social situations that the pandemic has paused, complicated, or eliminated outright. In a January piece in The Atlantic on this very problem, Amanda Mull offers a number of such characters, including the person who visits the gym at the same time, “the co-worker from another department with whom you make small talk on the elevator,” alums who descend on the same bar to watch your alma mater’s football team. Following the sociologist Mark Granovetter, Mull dubs these people on the periphery of our lives our “weak ties.”

Mull cites social scientists and physicians who argue that these “weak ties” contribute to our wellbeing in a variety of ways. One is the simple act of recognizing each other’s existence. Another is contributing to the sense of belonging to a wider community or array of communities. In addition, because the social worlds of these fringe friends don’t overlap entirely with ours, our encounters introduce “new ideas, new information, new opportunities, and other new people.” (Granovetter wrote of those with few weak ties being confined to the “provincial news and views of their close friends.”)

To this list, my spouse would add: The looseness of our “weak ties” frees us from the kinds of responsibilities we feel we owe people in our inner circle. The point of these “weak-tie” exchanges can be simply the delight of sociability itself—in glaring contrast to our time with people to whom we owe deeper obligations (a child, a parent, a spouse, etc.). Thus, as Alison found, weak ties may constitute a kind of buffer, or even social relief valve, between the more demanding interactions that go on within the classroom and home. Your third-tier friends can do things for you that your closest friends and family members can’t.

But perhaps to measure the pandemic’s social costs we also need to venture beyond the outer edges of friendship. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith directs us still further, arguing that strangers—another social group many of us have lost touch with—are necessary to our wellbeing, too. In keeping with wider Enlightenment thinking, Smith saw sociability as one of the principal human traits. That social isolation was bad for our mental health was, in turn, an Enlightenment commonplace. “Man is born to live in society,” Denis Diderot wrote in 1780, “Separate him, isolate him, and his way of thinking will become incoherent, his character will change, a thousand foolish fancies will spring up in his heart, bizarre ideas will take root in his mind like brambles in the wilderness.”

Smith proposed that strangers play a special role in checking the growth of brambles. Unlike our friends and family, Smith observed, strangers aren’t already on our side. We can’t expect them to take our position in a quarrel or extol our successes. That’s good, Smith argues, because strangers can thereby serve as a corrective to our penchants to overestimate our joys and sorrows:

In solitude, we are apt to feel too strongly whatever relates to ourselves: we are apt to overrate the good offices we may have done, and the injuries we may have suffered: we are apt to be too much elated by our own good, and too much dejected by our own bad fortune. The conversation of a friend brings us to a better, that of a stranger to a still better temper. The man within the breast, the abstract and ideal spectator of our sentiments and conduct, requires often to be awakened and put in mind of his duty, by the presence of the real spectator: and it is always from that spectator, from whom we can expect the least sympathy and indulgence, that we are likely to learn the most complete lesson of self-command.

Notice Smith’s movement from friend to stranger in the center of this passage. Talking to a friend is better than chewing things over by yourself at home (or, we may add, blustering on Twitter). But if we want to achieve real equanimity, conversation with a stranger is still better because the stranger has no reason to buy our account of things automatically. Interacting with strangers thus requires us to consider how we might seem to an outside, disinterested perspective, and to adjust the pictures we’ve formed of our supposed “good offices,” injuries suffered, and “bad fortune” in turn. The stranger becomes the catalyst for a more even-handed self-assessment, her “real spectator” serving as a goad to the dormant “impartial spectator” we all harbor within.

Smith’s claims about the operations of our moral psychology are certainly debatable. Such salubrious effects may seem exaggerated, even farfetched, when recalling the run-of-the-mill conversations that you had with strangers before the pandemic. Yet Smith surely had a point about how talking with people whom you don’t know—or don’t know well—creates at least an opportunity to consider if we may have overrated a thing or two that pertains to ourselves. In the company of those whose genuine interest we can’t assume, we may find ourselves asking healthy questions like “How important is this, really?” and “Do I need to share this?” or even “Would someone I don’t know believe this?” The stranger may or may not kick into gear the “impartial spectator” that Smith describes, but her uncertain presence can, at the very least, cause us to question what we take for granted when left to our own devices. To use Smith’s language, the stranger “calls off” a person’s “attention from his own view” and serves as a vital counter to “the indulgent sympathy of [our] intimate friends.”

Observing our year of social retreat, Smith would have surely reached the same conclusion as my spouse: we all need to see other people. His reasoning was different, of course. Whereas Alison yearned for the simple pleasures of low-stakes exchanges, Smith called us to embrace the friction of conversing with people whose concern for us, for our affairs, for our opinions can’t be taken for granted.

Their thinking might seem opposed, but I want to suggest that their ideas may be in fact complementary. Smith wasn’t proposing that we trade our loved ones for strangers any more than Alison was suggesting that she preferred acquaintances to the members of our household. Both place these associations within a wider web of relations, which includes friends and family members of the first rank. What they are calling us to see is that our wellbeing—psychological and even moral—is jeopardized when our social circles narrow to only those who know us best and require the most of us. On their telling, our social world consists of a variety of types and kinds of contacts, each applying its own pressures and addressing our varied needs. My spouse’s key discovery is that the whole system functions better when our days permit contact with the centers and outer edges of our social circles. As the vaccines change our social rhythms, allowing us to venture further out from the islands on which we’ve spent the last year, we do well to remember these lessons. Renewing your weak ties might make your closest ties stronger.