Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve probably kept tabs on your closest friends and family members through Zoom parties, FaceTime chats, texts, socially distanced walks, and maybe even a few old-fashioned phone calls.
But what about those people you know simply from passing one another in the hallway at work? Or the barista who makes your drink every morning on the way to the office? Those people—the ones you have “weak ties” with—have probably fallen off your radar during the pandemic, especially if you’re working from home. And it turns out that you (well, all of us) may be worse off because of it.
“While it seems people know that having close bonds (in friendship, in family, and in romance) alleviates loneliness and contributes to an overall sense of well-being, many people may not know that casual acquaintances can have a significant effect on happiness levels as well,” says Jay Weiss, MA, LLP, an employee assistance program therapist at Henry Ford Health. “Studies have shown that the more casual acquaintances someone has—and the more interactions with these acquaintances they have—the happier they are.”
The Role Casual Connections Play In Our Lives
It’s easy to think that small talk—a conversation about the weather, for example—is inconsequential and perhaps even a waste of time. But this isn’t so: having a two-minute conversation with someone can be mood-boosting.
“It’s all about connection,” says Weiss. “Human beings need to connect with other human beings. It doesn’t have to be an in-depth conversation. It makes us feel good knowing someone is interested in us and we are interested in someone else. It makes us feel like we’re not alone.”
Along with helping us feel connected to our community and the world around us, there are additional ways that these casual acquaintances and conversations can be beneficial:
- Casual acquaintances can make us more empathetic. Just as reading books about different people can make you more empathetic, knowing many different people can increase your empathy, too.
- Casual acquaintances can expose us to different views. Those in our inner circle often share our views, but it’s more likely that casual acquaintances come from a range of backgrounds and offer a range of perspectives. “Acquaintances give you new information, they increase your social networks, they provide diversity and variety,” Weiss explains. “They can broaden your horizons.”
- Casual acquaintances are stress-free, easy relationships. While we need close relationships, they are often emotionally loaded and have their ups and downs. Casual acquaintances can be a breath of fresh air. “There’s less fear of getting hurt, less emotional turmoil,” Weiss says. “Say, for example, you’re in a funk one day. Friends will try to engage you more than you want to engage, but acquaintances won’t try to do that. They’ll let you be.”
Ways You Can Increase Casual Interactions During The Pandemic
While safety measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have lessened the amount of face-to-face interaction we have, there are still ways you can safely engage with others. Weiss offers a few suggestions:
- Talk to people as you go about your daily errands. While taking a walk outside or waiting in line at the supermarket, chat someone up. “Maybe they’re buying something you love, or they’re wearing a cool hat or mask,” Weiss says. “Tell them—it will likely boost their mood, and yours, too.”
- Get a dog. (No, really!) “So many people have been adopting pets during the pandemic,” says Weiss. “My family adopted a puppy, and he’s allowed us to develop connections. We’ll take him to the dog park, and we talk to other people about our dogs.”
- Interact with delivery workers. Those packages don’t get to your house on their own—if you happen to be there when they arrive, thank the delivery workers. And if you aren’t there? Leave a bowl with a few packaged treats at the door for them to take, thanking them for their help.
“These might seem like simple, superficial things,” Weiss says, “but they carry more power than we know, especially during this time. A little effort to interact with others can make a big impact.”
To make an appointment with a Henry Ford doctor or therapist, call 1-800-436-7936.
Jay Weiss, MA, LLP, is a certified health and wellness coach and an employee assistance program therapist at Henry Ford Health.