close up of a metal chain

The strength of weak ties

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

My next-door neighbor Tom is a colorful, retired union tradesman. I adore him. This weekend, I overheard him watching the NBA playoffs in his backyard. I shouted over to see if he wanted company, and I joined him with a beer.

I’ve struggled with the social isolation of the last 15 months in many ways. I didn’t see much of my extended family, and I spent far less time with my friends and my coworkers. It was hardly enough but with these closest relationships, I did a lot of video calls and some social distance gathering.

The relationships I completely lost were my “weak ties,” as sociologists call them. In any healthy social network, we often over-estimate the importance our strong ties and under-estimate weak ties — those who you might not invite to your wedding. They give you new ideas, new information and new opportunities, exactly because you don’t overlap with your weak ties as much as your strong ties.

Over the last 15 months, I rarely made small talk with strangers clad in masks. I had my groceries shipped to my house. I gave only distant waves to my neighbors. That’s slowly changing for me, and I am continuously surprised by how happy I am to joke with the guy grilling at the park (I’ll come back to get my hot dog!). To be honest, I don’t entirely feel myself yet. I have burnout I need to address, and enough of my life has changed (new parent here!) that I can’t entirely go back to my habits of The Before Times. I’m nervous about being too optimistic with pandemic variants and vaccine hesitancy remaining. Optimism, though, is a survival tactic.

As Tom and I watched the 76ers force a Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks, other neighbors from adjacent Philadelphia rowhomes shouted out their game strategy (“Doc needs to sit Ben!”). It was just the kind of collective experience that has always drawn me to cities, with their density and social strengths. One of the other neighbors watching and shouting with us is someone I’ve known for years but I hardly know his name.

We are all getting back to many of our strong ties (Last week, I hosted my company’s first all-team gathering since 2019!). Take care to cherish the weak ties too.

(Chain photo by Matthew Lancaster via Unsplash)