Research shows that casual connections can make you happier and more successful — but you don’t have to transform into an extrovert to make them.
“I’ve just read a great book,” said Moira, “I think you’ll like it. It’s called, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain.”
“Sounds interesting,” I replied, pulling out my Kindle. Moira and I shared an interest in books and I trusted her judgment. I quickly found the title on Amazon and downloaded the book.
It was one of those casual meetings in the office coffee-corner. We would often exchange a few pleasantries, but this time the discussion was going to change my life: Susan Cain’s book helped me understand for the first time what it means to be an introvert. The book enabled me to overcome many painful feelings of inadequacy and started me on the journey that helped me feel happy about being an introvert.
Moira and I had many pleasant chats by the water cooler, but if I were ever to write my biography, she would probably not get a mention as someone who had any major part in my life. Despite that, that one brief encounter had a profound influence on the way I perceived myself.
The Introvert’s Small (But Crucial) Circle of Friends
Like many introverts, I have a small group of close friends. I often feel uncomfortable in large groups or when having to make small talk with casual acquaintances. But since working from home, I actually find myself missing my friends from work, people like Moira. I don’t miss the chaos of the office, the constant interruptions, or the needless meetings — but I do miss those few relationships I’ve come to cherish.
It got me thinking about these friendships, and I had to deal with the revelation that these more distant relationships mattered to me more than I had realized. And as that conversation with Moira shows, a casual acquaintance can have a profound influence.
Research Shows the Importance of ‘Weak Ties’
Research has shown that a circle of casual acquaintances is important at several levels:
1. They challenge our assumptions and inspire us.
Mark Granovetter, a sociology professor at Stanford University and author of a landmark research paper titled, The Strength of Weak Ties (1974), described how our social worlds are often divided into an inner circle of people who we talk to frequently and feel close with (strong ties), and an outer circle of acquaintances who we see infrequently or fleetingly (weak ties).
Surprisingly, he suggested that to gain new information and ideas, weak ties are more important to us than strong ones. Strong ties, like family members and close friends, are important emotionally and can be the backbone of a fulfilling life. But, according to Granovetter, they aren’t a good source of new ideas and perspectives because they are composed of people who are too similar to us. Our strong ties exist in the same environment and share many of the same outlooks as we do, so are less likely to challenge us to rethink our assumptions.
2. They help our careers succeed .
Karen Wickre, author of Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count, emphasizes the importance of a wide circle of friends in creating contacts for work, especially for those who are working as freelancers. With the Gig economy now becoming a reality for many of us, the ability to form a wide circle of weak connections can be central to our career success.
3. They make us happy and give us a sense of belonging.
Gillian Sandstrom, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex, UK, has carried out research into the extent to which people derive happiness from weak-tie relationships. She asked participants to keep a journal of social interactions over a period of time and found that participants with larger networks of weak ties were happier. On days when a participant had a greater number of casual interactions with weak ties — for example, a local barista, a neighbor, or a member of a yoga class — they experienced more happiness and a greater sense of belonging.
Why Weak Ties Are Important (Even for Introverts)
So where does this leave us “quiet ones”? As introverts, we are typically good at making deep and meaningful connections, but may find it painfully difficult to develop a circle of casual friends. If weak connections are important, how do we create such a circle? Thankfully, the evidence shows that we do not need to become social warriors to develop these skills.
Previously, I had thought of distant relationships as superficial, an anathema to the introvert. I never thought of investing any effort into developing these types of relationships, but I now realize a connection can be meaningful, even if it’s just a smile when passing in the corridor.
The only condition I would add is these relationships should be one to one. Those boisterous outings to the restaurant with extroverted colleagues are never going to lead to better friendships for the introvert (no matter what the proponents of “team bonding” would have you believe). Those noisy business lunches with low lights, background music, and everyone shouting above the din is a perfect environment for extroverts, who seek to heighten their mental arousal by increased activity, social engagement, and other stimulation-seeking behaviors. However, the same environment is torture for most introverts, whose senses can be quickly overwhelmed — making any kind of meaningful conversation impossible.
How to Create Casual Connections
The good news is that even as introverts, we can create a circle of loose, yet meaningful connections — without transforming ourselves into extroverts. By starting with small steps, we make extending our social circle a part of our daily routine. Here are some techniques that have helped me to develop those casual connections:
1. Find one point of common interest with your colleagues.
At work or school, look for one point of common interest with each of your acquaintances that can form the basis of a conversation when you meet. In the above example, Moira and I shared an interest in books, and the fact that we are both introverts gave us a common cause. Another work colleague was, like me, a fan of rock music, so I could always start the conversation by telling him about a recent album I’d listened to. Another friend, like me, was planning to build a house, so we could always share our latest moans about the appalling bureaucrats at the local planning committee, and so on.
2. Shop at the local grocery store.
Make a habit of shopping at the same place. You’ll get to know the staff, and it gives a feeling of community. Sometimes a friendly “How are you today?” is all an introvert needs.
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3. Join a local gym or yoga class.
Common group activities give you a nonverbal connection and a feeling of belonging, and for those after-exercise chats, you will have at least one interest in common with everyone in the group.
4. Become a regular at a local restaurant or coffee bar.
A familiar face, a smile, and a welcome can do wonders for your feelings of inclusion.
5. Keep in touch with old friends.
Text, email, or message through social media. The method doesn’t matter — use whatever works for you as an introvert. The important thing is to keep them in your life.
Sometimes All an Introvert Needs Is a Small Interaction
Make the effort to develop and maintain those distance connections. They are important. Do not feel frustrated or a failure because you cannot turn those brief encounters into deep and meaningful relationships. However fleeting, the polite exchange with a work colleague, the smile from the barista, a “good morning” from the shop keeper at the corner store, all give us a feeling of security and belonging.
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