More Desperately Seeking Sanity: The Power of Casual Acquaintances

“Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.”  Benjamin Franklin


I love Benjamin Franklin and look often to his wisdom for insights; the quote above is one which I find appropriate for what we are going through right now.  It causes me to think not about the big things that are missing from our lives during this time, but the small things.

At lot has been written about preserving or enhancing connections with close friends and family, but what may be missing from our lives – and what may be felt even more keenly – could actually be the interaction with casual acquaintances or even strangers.  I find that while I still have good friends that I am interacting with on a regular basis, I no longer have the casual interactions that result from being out and about, shopping, eating out, interacting with people on a casual, and even unnoticed, basis, and I wonder what impact this lack of casual interaction is having on my wellbeing.

Those little interactions – saying hello to the security guard at the entrance to the school, sharing an elevator with others who work in your building, being greeted by the same cheerful person at the café, meeting with customers or clients, chatting with regular attendees at the gym, a quick lunch with coworkers or chatting with regulars at the corner diner, talking to the attendant at the pet store, even listening to the buzz of the casual conversations of others – these casual, or “weak” connections with those we do not know well – can contribute to our overall wellbeing in a meaningful way.  These interactions give us not only some breadth of perspective on news and current events, but also give us an opportunity to be kind and spread cheer in a non-threatening way, an activity that is associated with improved wellbeing.  These “weak” ties have been associated with social network diversity, which has also been identified as protective against disease.

It is these casual interactions, even when we are engaged in otherwise solitary activities, that lend us the feeling of social connection.  And today, with social distancing and restricted access to shopping and restaurants, these activities are diminished or even eliminated.  With a shroud of fear blanketing any excursion into the wilds of the supermarket, people aren’t approaching others and aren’t engaging in simple, casual social contact for fear of getting too close and invading someone else’s space (or having someone invade our own).  Where I would previously engage in conversation with someone over the quality of produce, or the selection of fresh fish, I find I am worried about getting too close and being seen as suspect in the eyes of others.

So, you ask, in this era of social-distancing, how do we create or preserve “weak” ties?  Given the considerations of the times, it isn’t as easy as it once was and must be intentional.  Some ideas include chatting with the clerk at the take-out window, inquiring as to the wellbeing of the customer service agent on the phone and then thanking her for helping you, waving at neighbors (even ones you do not know) as you drive down your street, thanking the cashier at the grocer for continuing to work to serve the community, reaching out to casual acquaintances to say hello and see how they are doing, organizing a video workout session with acquaintances from the gym.  Or when you see something like a video group meeting of like-minded individuals, join it.  A friend of mine organized the Philosophers Café (a meeting of a diverse group of café customers) on Zoom once the café they met at weekly was closed, and another friend has organized daily Zoom-based sing-a-longs open to any who want to participate.

Make an effort to connect with others on a casual basis – it may just provide an unexpected boost to your wellbeing.

Posted April, 2020



Sandstrom & Sunn, 2014

Seligman, 2011

Cohen & Janicki-Deverts, 2009

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