The Power Of Society’s Most Underappreciated Relationship

 

This week, our class considered “friendship” in its broadest possible terms. We talked about connections so transient that one party never learns the other’s name; we also talked about how to make deep friendships last a lifetime, and about what makes relationships easy or difficult. To capture our entire week’s worth of content, we (your blog post writers) each focused on a different tier of friendship. Stephanie wrote about weak ties, Esther wrote about the importance of connection, and Iris wrote about individual differences in friendship. Thanks for reading!

 

Stephanie (weak ties):

As important as our close friendships are, weak ties also have many important benefits and play an important role in our wellbeing.​​ Think about the person that always holds the door open for you before class or maybe the Black Sheep worker that knows your order by heart. Those people, even though you might only just know their name, are an important part of your daily life and have an effect on your need to belong. As we learned in the lecturette, people with more weak ties and acquaintances have greater creativity, perspective taking, empathic accuracy and well being.  

In the reading by Sandstrom & Dunn (2014), there is evidence that proves how weak ties have important benefits such as the diffusion of information. The study shows how people who interacted with more classmates reported greater happiness. I definitely agree with that and feel that on days where I have a lot of class, even though I am more busy I feel happier to be around people as opposed to just sitting around in my room alone. The paper extends to show how with more daily interactions with weak ties, people are happier and experience greater feelings of belonging. Overall, we find that people in general feel a greater sense of belonging with more weak ties. 

More personally, I can think of certain weak ties in my life that create a sense of normalcy as well as always put a smile on my face. One in particular, is a HUDS employee who I see every day at dinner time. Without fail, we say hello to each other every day and as how the other’s day has been. Sometimes we catch up about each other’s breaks or weekends as well as upcoming events in the house. Even though I would not consider her to be a close friend of mine, I definitely rely and always count on that relationship to always put a smile on my face. Another acquaintance that I interact with daily is somebody that I often see in the dining hall. Even though we just met this year, I feel I am always greeted with a big smile and we sometimes sit together to have a meal. While it is not somebody that I interact with often, he is definitely someone that is part of my daily routine that I can learn a lot from. 

However, the concept of weak ties was especially hard during COVID, when we were unable to leave our houses and interact in our normal ways. It was a strange shift to go from seeing many people in a day to only seeing faces over zoom classes. However, even so, I also found ways to create weak ties, like waving and talking to people in the neighborhood when I would go on my daily walks. Therefore no matter the setting or circumstances, interacting with different people can not only expand your relationships of weak ties, but can also lead you to create more friendships. Whether it is one thing that connects you to someone else or a shared experience you are a part of, weak ties are integral to our lives. 

 

Esther (importance of ties):

“You’re my person.”

“My person” made its first appearance in 2005 on “Grey’s Anatomy,” showcasing Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey’s intimate friendship. The term’s charm is that it isn’t defined by blood or law. Your person is your best soul friend, ride or die, platonic life partner. They might stay the same or change. The phrase was coined when it became evident that millennials put off marriage to focus on their friendships and professions. Despite these changes, the notion that a monogamous love partnership is the planet around which all other relationships should revolve hasn’t changed. We need a phrase for the humans who show up for us as Cristina and Meredith do for each other until there is a life partner in the picture, or even if there never is.

Despite their importance, friendships are understudied compared to other intimate relationships, while romantic relationships have gotten a lot more attention. (Pratscher et al., 2018).

Active friendships require active maintenance. You get to sit back, do nothing, and enjoy the benefits of a meaningful relationship. But action is especially important to friendship which carries no familiar expectations. If you don’t take action to mark it as important and keep it alive, a friendship will not survive. However, placing a friendship at the center of one’s life unsettles the norm (Cohen, 2020). I want a world where friendship is appreciated more. I want holidays to commemorate friendship. I want thousands of songs, movies, and poems about the intimacy and connection between friends. 

Harvard can be a lonely place. It can feel like standing in the middle of a crowded intersection with everyone around you and no one around you at the same time. The loneliness can be crippling and suffocating. I often invalidate my own feelings, especially when I’m not as “smiley” as people usually think I am. Despite advice that I give to others, I find myself feeling that I don’t “deserve” to be upset – to feel what I feel – because my problems will only burden others for the worse if I share them with them. 

Ultimately, people will notice that there is more to you than you let on. They will look at you closely and listen to you attentively enough to know that there are stories hidden in your bones that you’ve never told anyone. Such people will ask you about things that others never made an effort to understand. They will come to value who you are because they will take the time to really know your story. Sometimes souls instantly click. Some friendships allow us to feel safe like home. These bonds are special and last forever no matter what city you live in or how often you talk. I’m forever grateful for the people in my life who know this side of me and offer me encouragement, support, and an outlet to express myself. They let me feel that it’s okay to not be okay and to let down my facade at times. So, if you ever see me on campus, feel free to say hi – I promise you it will make me happier than I already am! 🙂

 

Iris (lack of ties):

In the toddler class I teach this year, I have an autistic kid whom I’ll call F. F is adored by all the grown-ups in his life, I assume because he’s unusually adorable. In addition to winning people over with his goofy laugh and enthusiastic opinions, his favorite toy is a plush egg, which, how could anyone not fall for that? One of my co-teachers just bought a bubble gun solely because it made F. smile. His fan club includes most of the adults who’ve ever met him.

F. struggles to communicate with his peers, however, and the biggest fear I have for F. is that as a nonverbal person, he’ll have a hard time making friends. One can (and activists rightfully do) blame an unjust society for its lack of acceptance—but even if the deficit lies with the world and not with F., the result is the same. I don’t want him to be lonely. The readings this week were somewhat damning for folks like F. McPherson et al.’s “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks” (2001) compiles evidence suggesting that similarity undergirds friendship; F.’s brain works in a demonstrably different way than his peers’. Pratscher et al.’s “Interpersonal Mindfulness” (2017) puts stock in our ability to take others’ perspectives; F. is specifically bad at basic theory-of-mind tasks. It would be easy to look at F., as many have, and write off his ability to form social relationships. In general, our readings this week support that narrative.

And yet. I wonder, when I think about F. and his future, if my neurotypical frame of reference is capable of comprehending how he wants to relate to others. Does my conceptualization of friendship—informed by studies of college students who are likely, in aggregate, neurotypical—pertain to his experience of the world? What if he doesn’t want friends the way I want friends for him? Who am I to tell anyone that they are socially suffering? While I did the readings this week, I couldn’t get past the lingering thought—influenced by F.—that these studies leave people out. It is notoriously easy to nitpick psychology research, but the examples of exclusion are endless: disabled folks. People from non-western countries. Older adults or younger children. It is not obvious that these data on college students are applicable to other types of humans. 

Accordingly, while neurodiversity represents a specific case, I find the question of group differences in friendship attitudes to be more broadly interesting. Proximity may be useful, except when it isn’t; weak ties could be helpful unless, like F., your discomfort around strangers supersedes any benefit. I understand the impossibility of designing a perfect study, and the utility of studying something anyway. But I also think—at least when considering how I personally define a friend—that it is at least as important to remember marginal experiences as it is to attend to the dominant narratives we promote around friendship.

 

References 

Cohen, R. (2020). What if friendship, not marriage, was at the center of life? The Atlantic.

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual Review of Sociology, 27(1), 415–444.

Pratscher, S. D., Rose, A. J., Markovitz, L., & Bettencourt (2018). Interpersonal mindfulness: Investigating mindfulness in interpersonal interactions, co-rumination, and friendship quality. Mindfulness, 9(4), 1206-1215.

Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social interactions and well-being: The surprising power of weak ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(7), 910-922. 

 

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