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Casual encounters

The benefits of talking to strangers in the pandemic
Professor of psychology Karen L. Fingerman noted that casual connections with people encountered in the course of daily life can give people a feeling that they belong to a community, which she described as “a basic human need”.

Jane E. Brody   |     |   Published 12.08.20, 01:15 AM

I’m a lifelong extrovert who readily establishes and relishes casual contacts with people I encounter while walking my dog, shopping for groceries, working out, even sweeping my sidewalk. These ephemeral connections add variety to my life, are a source of useful information and often provide needed emotional and physical support. Equally important, they nearly always leave me with a smile on my face (now hidden under a mask!).

In recent months, many people lost such daily encounters. I, on the other hand, have done my best to maintain as many of them as possible while striving to remain safe. With in-person time with family and close friends now limited, the brief socially distant contacts with people in my neighbourhood, both those I’ve known casually for years and others I just met, have been crucial to my emotional and practical well-being.

The benefits I associate with my casual connections were reinforced recently by a fortuitous find. I stumbled upon a book in my library called Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter… but Really Do. Published 11 years ago, this enlightening volume was written by Melinda Blau, a science writer, and Karen L. Fingerman, currently a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, US, who studies the nature and effects of so-called weak ties that people have with others in their lives: the barista who fetches their coffee, the person who cuts their hair, the proprietor of the local market, the folks they see often at the gym or train station.

In an interview, Fingerman noted that casual connections with people encountered in the course of daily life can give people a feeling that they belong to a community, which she described as “a basic human need”.

As she and Blau wrote, consequential strangers “are as vital to our well-being, growth and day-to-day existence as family and close friends. Consequential strangers anchor us in the world and give us a sense of being plugged in to something larger. They also enhance and enrich our lives and offer us opportunities for novel experiences and information that is beyond the purview of our inner circles. They are vital social connections — they help you get through the day and make life interesting.”

My tendency to “chat up” total strangers I meet in the course of just living has resulted in a slew of acquaintances who have filled my days with pleasantries, advice, information, needed assistance and, most important during this time of enforced semi-isolation, a valuable sense of connections to people who share my environment.

Fingerman’s research has also shown that people who are more socially integrated are also more active physically. “Being sedentary kills you,” she said. “You have to get up and move to be with the people you run into when exercising.” Consequential strangers also help your brain, she said, because “conversations are more stimulating than with people you know well”.

Katherine L. Fiori, chairwoman of undergraduate psychology at Adelphi University, US, who studies social networks of older adults, has found that activities that foster “weaker ties” than are formed with family and close friends foster greater life satisfaction and better emotional and physical health.

“The greater the number of weaker ties, the stronger the association with positive feelings,” Fiori said in an interview. “It’s clearly not the case that close ties are all that older adults need.”

Fingerman said research has shown that “people do better when they have a more diverse group of people in their lives”. But as Fiori observed, “Unfortunately, Covid has severely curtailed our ability to maintain weaker ties.”

To counter the loneliness and maintain her casual connections, one of my buddies started a group email that not only filled in for the daily conversations she was missing but also gave her a support system when faced with an injury and struggling with the doom-and-gloom isolation.

As the authors wrote, “Where we live, work, shop and mingle has everything to do with the weak ties we cultivate, and therefore our quality of life.” As they described a central theme of their book, “Casual acquaintances inspire us to venture beyond our comfort zones.” And until we do, we’ll never know what we might gain from relationships with “people who don’t seem to matter.”

New York Times News Service

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