Psychology of Social Connection

Connected Yet Six Feet Apart: Acquaintances and Friendships During the Pandemic 

March 25th, 2022 · 19 Comments

Jess: A World Without Strangers

When we think about the people in our lives who we interact with on a daily basis, strangers rank low on the list. How often do the Starbucks barista who serves your coffee in the morning, the Uber driver who shuttles you and your group of friends into Boston, the student who holds the door open for you as you walk into class make lasting impressions in our memories? When such interactions are so frequent and menial compared to our deeper relationships with friends, family members, and romantic partners, they become easy to disregard. However, what happens when we completely remove strangers from our lives? 

The start of the pandemic marks a striking period of time when the world had little to no interactions between strangers. Transitioning from life at Harvard to life confined in my home was difficult. Suddenly, the minute interactions with strangers I had overlooked before were gone. For months, there were no more tourists who asked me for directions in the Yard, T passengers to make small talk with about the weather, or any opportunity where I could merely occupy the same space as a group larger than my family. While I could call my friends on FaceTime, entertain myself with multiplayer video games, and consume vast amounts of time on social media, the lack of in-person interactions with strangers made something essential feel missing. The silence in my neighborhood was eerie.

A series of 2014 studies by Gilian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn address the importance of peripheral social interactions on well-being. Their experiments demonstrate how weak social ties contribute to our subjective social and emotional well-being. The researchers found that participants who had, on average, more weak tie interactions than others reported greater feelings of belonging. Furthermore, they also found that participants reported greater feelings of belonging on days when they interacted with more weak ties than usual (Sandstrom & Dunn, 2014, p. 919). 

I found it particularly interesting to learn that the effect of additional weak ties on subjective well-being and belonging is stronger on days when people have fewer strong tie interactions than usual (p. 916). This would indicate that the negative effects of lacking weak tie interactions during the pandemic were especially magnified due to our likewise dwindling strong tie interactions. Indeed, as hard as I tried to maintain the close friendships I had developed at Harvard, it was difficult to feel as close to my friends as I did before. Over time, I noticed a growing apathy for scheduling FaceTime calls and increasing “Zoom fatigue” among my friends, which made it even more challenging to keep in touch. 

The Social Brain Hypothesis states that our cognitive temporal limitations place limits on human sociability (Perry, 2022, p. 30). During the height of the pandemic, it seemed that our already limited social resources had somehow shrunk to only accommodate a handful of strong ties we had the energy to maintain throughout isolation. Truthfully, I was most successful in maintaining only one to two of my closest friendships during the pandemic and lost touch with most others. Because I had less strong ties than usual, my world without strangers felt even more discomforting.

An Atlantic article by Joe Keohane echoes the benefit of interacting with strangers. “Again and again, studies have shown that talking with strangers can make us happier, more connected to our communities, mentally sharper, healthier, less lonely, and more trustful and optimistic,” the author writes (Keohane, 2021).  Although my personal discomfort in isolation prompted me to flock back to making weak tie social connections when possible — even if it meant just a short conversation with my neighbor six feet apart as we walked our dogs — Keohane noticed that the pandemic produced an opposite effect in others. Despite findings that weak tie interactions benefit well-being, many people still maintain a “stranger danger” mentality, “especially after the coronavirus pandemic limited our social lives so severely.” These observations suggest that perhaps some find greater comfort in silence and solace in stillness than I did. 

Furthermore, perhaps even more lie in between. As noted by Keohane, Sandstrom believed that people simply didn’t know how to talk to strangers and fill silence; once they did, they found it similarly as essential and rewarding as studies indicate. Thus, it is important to realize that there are both differences in how people seek out weak tie interactions, as well as barriers that might prevent people to do so, in order to better support our overall social and emotional well-being — even in times of extreme isolation like the pandemic. 

 

Arlo: Post-Pandemic Social Fatigue

Jess discusses the often overlooked value and power of weak ties in our daily lives, and how this became quite apparent during the most isolated parts of the pandemic. During isolation, I realized that a really important weak tie interaction in my life was saying hi to various acquaintances while walking through campus. Every day on my walk to class I would see a couple of people I knew, ranging from closer friends to people I’ve only talked to once or so. These interactions are often quite brief, maybe just a wave or a little flare of chatter.  While these interactions, similarly to most other weak tie interactions, don’t seem that important at first glance, I’ve come to realize how much these little greetings actually lift me up. For me these interactions seem to somewhat subconsciously put me into a positive and lighter state; they feel like belonging, like I’m being slightly held up by all these people and they care, not just about me but about the world, and this would often feel motivating. I think it also gives me some sort of sense of being a part of something, which is comforting.

Once the pandemic hit, it was at first quite rare that I would have that same feeling. Many of us went for at least a couple of weeks only interacting with a small set of people, often family or friends we were already quite close with. Similar to Jess, I feel like I was able to maintain just a few friendships throughout the pandemic to the extent of closeness that we had before the pandemic. These were particularly people I lived with or was in a tight circle with. Within these specific relationships, there reached a point where we as friends became closer than we had ever been before. After spending so much time together, our social dynamic felt quite deepened and somewhat raw. Yet I also felt that my general social capacity was lowering. With little new social interactions, my time was spent more and more on hobbies and other interests, creating an increasing sense of social fatigue. After isolation, I found that my capacity for general social interaction had decreased. I used to choose hanging out with friends over pretty much any activity, but now I often find myself wanting to stay in and work on music or watch a movie over going out. 

This change in social pace made me think about my parents and their social interaction with friends. For a while, I’ve always wondered why my parents don’t socialize that much in general, apart from the occasional dinners with friends or a book club meeting. At first, I thought it was just my parents but it seems like it is quite common. In an article from The Atlantic entitled ‘How Friendships Change in Adulthood’, the author Julie Beck describes, “As people enter middle age, they tend to have more demands on their time, many of them more pressing than friendship. After all, it’s easier to put off catching up with a friend than it is to skip your kid’s play or an important business trip. The ideal of people’s expectations for friendship is always in tension with the reality of their lives, Rawlins says.” While this definitely applies to my parents and their friends, it seems as if the pandemic has accelerated me into this a bit as well. When I think back to Freshman year, it was much more common for me to just hang out in a dorm room and talk with someone. These days much more of my socializing is at a meal or a party (aside from quite close friends and roommates). I’ve tended to categorize socializing into a more specific time frame, placing it as less spur of the moment and sometimes less valuable as maybe another activity in the day. As I get older I hope to still maintain at least some level of curiosity and spontaneity in various socialization.

 

References

Beck, J. (2015, October 2022). How friendships change in adulthood. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/10/how-friendships-change-over-time-in-adulthood/411466/ 

Keohane, J. (2021, August 4). The Surprising Benefits of Talking to Strangers. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/08/why-we-should-talk-strangers-more/619642/ 

Perry, J. (2022). Acquaintances & Friends [lecture]. Department of Psychology, Harvard University.

Sandstrom, G. M. & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social interactions and well-being: The surprising power of weak ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(5), 910-922. 

 

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19 responses so far ↓

  • Do Kim // Mar 26th 2022 at 8:39 am

    Hi Jess, thanks for your post! Your discussion about the disappearance of small talk and interactions with strangers during the pandemic is definitely something that resonated with me. You mention that these conditions made you seek weak tie interactions as much as you could, like through socially distanced conversations with your neighbor, while from the perspective of peer-related interactions, they largely dwindled, which was my experience as well. This made me think about the Zoom moments we had that were sort of the in-person “equivalents” of small talk: breakout rooms. While when in-person, when instructed to turn to my neighbor and discuss an idea, we would also have side conversations or discuss other random things when done answering the professor’s questions, my experience in the Zoom breakout rooms were very different. It often took a while for the people in the rooms, including myself, to start speaking, and once we were done answering the questions, people often muted themselves, turned off their videos, or just sat in silence for the remaining time. This just made me wonder about what aspects of the virtual interactions that may have made it difficult to interact, whether it be the importance of being physically in the same space, the extreme stress of the pandemic, or Zoom fatigue.

  • Spencer Carter // Mar 26th 2022 at 9:34 pm

    Jess and Arlo,

    I really enjoyed your post! I often find it difficult to process all the ways that the pandemic has changed my habits, priorities, and expectations, but I thought that you both presented very thoughtful reflections about the pandemic’s effect on your social lives. I also thought it was really interesting to compare your experiences of social isolation during the pandemic to my own. For example, Arlo mentioned that he missed saying hi to people as he walked across campus. However, that was actually one of the experiences I was most relieved to avoid. I’ve always hated running into people I like when I don’t have the time to check in with them or have a real conversation. I feel very awkward in these moments and have somewhat designed my life to avoid these run-ins whenever I can. However, I could relate to when both of you mentioned having the number of friends that you stayed in contact with dwindle to only a few. This was a difficult transition for me and I missed getting to hang out with people beyond my inner circle.

  • Stephanie // Mar 27th 2022 at 10:38 am

    Jess and Arlo, great blog post! I really enjoyed how the two blogs intertwined and related to each other in a way that built upon the other. Arlo I thought it was super interesting when you mentioned how your parents do not socialize as much as you would expect. I feel like I have a similar experience with my parents and your explanation made a lot of sense! I also related to what you said about post pandemic and not feeling super social or wanting to do as many social things as you used to do. At first I wanted to do all the social things I could because it had been so long since I saw big groups of people and friends I hadn’t seen at the pandemic, but once that initial excitement had worn off, I did not feel as much of a need to be super social.

    Jess, I feel like we had pretty similar blog posts and I like how you mentioned the effect of additional weak ties on well-being and belonging was stronger on days when people have fewer strong tie interactions than usual. I think that is a very interesting point that shows how important weak ties can be and how much of an influence it can have on our day to day lives. That ties very well into pandemic experiences when there were few strong ties but even fewer weak ties.

  • Georgia Steigerwald // Mar 27th 2022 at 1:16 pm

    Thanks so much for your post Jess and Arlo!

    Jess, I really related to what you shared about only keeping in contact with a couple friends throughout the pandemic. I had to put so much energy into those relationships, that many others dropped off. I definitely felt during that time that weak ties were all that much more important. I remember tagging along with my mom all the time to go to the grocery store or target just to get out of the house and see other humans. On the flip side, I too noticed zoom fatigue and found it harder and harder to be actively reaching out to people all the time.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Summer Cai // Mar 27th 2022 at 2:11 pm

    Hi Jess and Arlo, thanks for a great post!
    I certainly emphasize with the eeriness of suddenly loosing all the weak ties during pandemic Jess described. For me though, I’m not really missing my weak ties themselves but the possibility of meeting someone new and being able to spark an interesting conversation or new rewarding relationship with them. I felt stuck and stunted socially and that really negatively affected my mental health.
    But I found myself reacting in a way that’s more similar to Arlo: I started to back away from general socializing and wants to be alone or with a few friends more often. Sometimes I worry about losing my intimate connections: as my social support network is smaller, losing one of them would be losing a greater proportion of my support system and more devastating. Yet, for the most part, I find myself happier with my social life since I don’t feel the need to socialize with people I don’t feel a connection with (and less FOMO too). I find myself socializing more like a “middle aged person” as Julie Beck described LOL…I wonder how much of this change is due to simply aging and become more “mature” and how much is exacerbated by the pandemic?

  • Kara Xie // Mar 27th 2022 at 2:53 pm

    Jess – it was also the COVID pandemic for me that made me realize I love the little moments of small talk and stranger interactions. Sometimes its those little interactions that make my day moreso than with close friends. I think it is because with friends, it’s expected that they will care for you/be nice to you but for strangers, it is not expected. Therefore, when they are nice it has an even bigger effect because it’s so unexpected. Arlo – I relate to the comment about how my capacity for social interaction is smaller. I think it’s because I’ve grown more comfortable in a quieter environment of not seeing so many acquaintances at once. Also, keeping in contact with friends over quarantine shows you who the real ones are.

  • Jonathan Yuan // Mar 28th 2022 at 1:16 am

    Jess and Arlo, thank you for the really interesting blog post! I find the two sides of this post to be really compelling and have thought about this a lot.

    Jess, I completely relate to the experience of isolation you mention during the early stages of the pandemic. Without having these opportunities for weak ties, I really felt cut off from the rest of the world in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. I also find your point about a lack of weak ties making the experience much worse really interesting, because it really seems like this isolation compounded the emotional stress and turmoil we were already facing. I’d be curious to see if that effect was lessened once things started opening up again!

    Arlo, I also really relate to your experience. I also felt a real sense of fatigue during the first few months of the fall, as everyone was adjusting to be being back. I felt like I had no motivation to go out and meet strangers or really try to make new friends, instead choosing to hang out with close friends I already had or even just staying alone. I think that has lessened a bit but hasn’t entirely gone away. I wonder if there are or will be ways to combat this effect, since I’m sure many people are feeling it these days. It is quite sad to think that other obligations will continue to get in the way, but knowing the research behind this phenomenon, I hope to at least catch myself a bit more easily when I engage in that kind of thinking!

    Thank you again for the great post!

  • Sierra Agarwal // Mar 28th 2022 at 9:39 am

    Jess and Arlo, this is a great post!

    Arlo, reading your story about how the small weak tie connections you had on campus impacted you made me reflect on how it impacted me as well. The quick “Hi” or hand wave to someone who although I may not call one of my closest friends, but whom I still have some level of interaction with is something that impacts me on a greater scale. Knowing that someone else is taking the time or energy to want to say “Hi” or engage in a small interaction makes me feel wanted, liked, gives me reassurance that the interaction I have with that person is reciprocated. When experiences and instances like those were taken away because of the pandemic, it definitely made me feel as if I am missing a part of my life and my experience. Now that those interactions have been brought up again because we are back on campus and seeing so many people every day, I have come to realize how important they are in and of themselves.

    Your point about the change in social pace also had me think about how I have changed with regard to socializing and social pace. Being in isolation for so long definitely made me prioritize socializing with certain people just because I was not able to see people for various reasons. Given this, something I have been thinking about lately is how does isolation combined with getting older play a role in these friendships? Am I more particular about who I want to spend time with because the pandemic forced me to do so, or is it because of age, or a mix of the two?

    Great job you two!

  • Patrick S // Mar 28th 2022 at 5:14 pm

    Hi Jess, I loved your deep dive into why we are quick to prioritize closer relationships, rather than weaker-tie relationships and your introduction of the Social Brian Hypothesis when analyzing how we deprioritize weak-tie relationships. I thought that your mention of a “stranger danger” mentality was interesting, as it got me thinking about what makes a stranger turn from “dangerous” to “friendly”, and what kind of biases we have when labeling strangers.

    Arlo, really loved how you brought the concept of social fatigue into this discussion of weak tie interactions. I wonder if there have been studies that have particularly looked at how our social interactions have changed over the pandemic, and a return to more normalcy. I’m curious as to whether our capacity to have social interactions have decreased, compared to other classes of college students.

  • Gayoung Choi // Mar 28th 2022 at 9:44 pm

    Arlo, I can definitely relate to your comment about how a simple “hi” can uplift me. I realized that coming back to campus from a gap year as a super senior, I didn’t know like 90% of undergraduates. I used to be able to wave hello to people a few times every time I walked to class before the pandemic, but it is a much rarer event for me nowadays. This leaves me feeling weird, like I’m unpopular or makes me feel a little more lonely, and definitely has affected my view of the value I bring to this campus.

  • Michael Pankowski // Mar 28th 2022 at 11:00 pm

    Jess and Arlo — thanks for your post!
    Jess, thanks for your interesting thoughts on interacting with strangers. I, too, never realized the benefit of interacting with strangers until the pandemic, when doing so wasn’t an option anymore. I took these interactions for granted, as I’m sure a lot of people did, and it took me a while before I even realized that I miss them. These interactions are easy to overlook, but are so important, as your blog post shows. Thanks for linking these studies — intriguing findings! I’ll consider this more in the future.

    Arlo,
    I thought what you wrote about friendships in adulthood was very pertinent as I think about what adulthood is going to be like (the thoughts of a second-semester senior, lol). Honestly, it’s hard to see to what extent friendships can play a part of my life in my future 60+ hour work week, and that’s before getting married/having kids! I don’t know how people in some professions even have friends at all, but I guess that’s a tradeoff they’re willing to make. I think this is a problem that not a lot of people talk about — the difficulty of maintaining friendships in adulthood — and so I’m glad you brought it up!

  • Maya Dubin // Mar 29th 2022 at 1:59 pm

    Jess:
    I really liked your reflection on the importance of weak ties. Specifically in a post-isolation world it is important to reflect on what weak ties mean to us and how we can notice when they are missing. While the pandemic made us all focus on our strong ties very closely, many people felt alone and isolated. I would argue this is because there was a lack of weak ties on a everyday basis which is what usually gives us a “great feeling of belonging.”

    Arlo:
    I thought your reflection on your experience with the pandemic was very insightful. I resonated with one point you raised about your parents’ social lives especially during the pandemic. I also have been thinking a lot about this and wondering when that shift occurs. For me I think I would be dissatisfied with the social lives my parents have, but for them it works just fine. It makes me think that the conclusion that “as people enter middle age, they tend to have more demands on their time, many of them more pressing than friendship,” is very true.

  • Julia Prior // Mar 30th 2022 at 3:15 pm

    Thank you both for this blog post!

    Jess – I thought it was interesting how you pointed out that with COVID, as our strong ties may have suffered due to less contact, the lack of weak ties felt even worse. Although strangers like an Uber driver do not make lasting impressions on our memories, I often find having quick conversations or small acts of kindness like having a stranger keep the door open for you leave me feeling overall happier. It makes me think that these small interactions with strangers remind us that we are not alone, and a stranger showing an act of kindness or having a quick conversation, makes us feel good because we have little expectations for strangers besides basic respect and it fills our need to belong.

    Arlo – I really enjoyed your perspective on social fatigue in a post-pandemic world. Your example of weak tie interactions walking through campus made me think about how I valued those connections and missed them at the beginning of the pandemic, but upon coming back this year, I found myself more anxious for little interactions that once brought me joy. I think this shows the impact the pandemic and living without many in-person interactions can quickly change our attitudes towards socializing. I too find myself preferring to stay in with close friends and I wonder if over time social preferences will return to the way they once were or if the pandemic has left lasting social effects.

  • Tom Aicardi // Mar 30th 2022 at 8:50 pm

    Thank you Arlo and Jess for your great blogs!

    I definitely agree that small social interactions can have an impact on one’s wellbeing during that day. Upon returning to Harvard’s campus this September, I definitely noticed the impact of running into “casual” friends or acquaintances to have small conversations with. I saw that these interactions, although short, had a positive impact on my mental state especially since I was deprived of these types of interactions while at home the previous year. During this year, I would mainly only interact with my close friends from Harvard, high school, and my neighbors. Because of this, it was refreshing to run into casual friends or friends from Freshman year that I had not seen in a while when I returned to campus. Sandstrom and Dunn’s 2014 article was very interesting when discussing how weak tie interactions have a positive impact on one’s day to day experience and I noticed how the absence of these interactions negatively affected me while at home.

  • Helena Jiang // Apr 2nd 2022 at 4:09 pm

    Jess, thank you for bringing up the importance of strangers in everyday lives – as we talk about our most close relationships with friendships, significant others, and family, it’s quite easy to forget about strangers, of which help shape our relationships. It’s also incredibly interesting to hear about your perspective of going from a normal life at Harvard to a pandemic-filled life full of…well lacking normal things. Even the smallest things like running into a tourist and having them ask directions can make such a big difference. Your relationships with strangers are arguably just as important as those with your friends and family. Arlo, thank you for mentioning how nice it is to say hi to friends passing by; I definitely feel the same way, and I can see how this is a very universal feeling. Something as big as a global pandemic can really show you how strong ties are, and how weak other ties are. It seems to be a very common consensus that are social batteries are just a bit smaller. It’s also crazy to put it into the perspective of our parents – I read through the article you mentioned from The Atlantic, and it offers such an interesting perspective, thank you so much for sharing it!

  • Lane // Apr 9th 2022 at 11:42 am

    Jess — you mentioned that people don’t often talk to strangers perhaps because they don’t know how to. I imagine this decline has occurred primarily since the advent of cellphone and digital interactions. Whereas in the past we may have spoken to strangers because we had nothing else to do or hold our attention on a commute or in a waiting room, now we can entertain ourselves with our phones and so have less desire to and experience with engaging strangers. I’ve found that I often want to talk to a stranger because I have discovered the mood boost it can offer, but I’m not entirely sure how to initiate a conversation or I’m concerned I may be disrupting them from something important (if they are on their phone it isn’t clear whether they are doing something meaningful or killing time.)
    Arlo — I found it curious that you started spending more time on your hobbies and less time with friends after the pandemic because in my case it was the opposite. The pandemic reinforced the importance of spending more time socializing and being with others as a source of positive energy for me. Specifically, sharing activities with others because this amplified experiences for me and made me feel closer with others, more so than simply sharing a meal. Since the pandemic then, I have been far more active in organizing recreational activities with other people.

  • Patrick Walsh // Apr 11th 2022 at 11:23 pm

    Thank you Jess and Arlo for your blog posts, I enjoyed reading them both. Arlo – Thank you for sharing your personal experiences on how your need for social connection changed during the pandemic. I think it’s very interesting how your desire to connect with others decreased as the pandemic went on and continued once the pandemic had subsided. I actually found that the pandemic had the exact opposite effect for me. Prior to the pandemic I didn’t really ever have a burning desire to go out and hang out with friends and would often find myself hanging out in my dorm room doing work or watching a movie. When we got sent home at the beginning of the pandemic and I lost many social connections I started to realize how important these were to me and desired more human connection. I ended up getting a job while taking online classes just to fulfill this desire to connect socially with others. Once we got back to school I found myself going out with friends much more and prioritizing that over just about anything else. This makes me curious as to why the pandemic and lack of human interaction could have very different impacts on different individuals.

  • Sofie Fella // Apr 12th 2022 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks Jess and Arlo for this blog post!

    Arlo – I thought it was really interesting when you brought up your parents and them not socializing as much because of different priorities that age can bring. I actually really enjoy this “middle age” way of socializing to what we experience in college. When I first moved to Boston and started Harvard, I always felt a bit overwhelmed and out of place and I believe it’s because while I do enjoy small interactions with weak ties throughout my days (I don’t love being isolated!) I like to have more autonomy over the number of people I see in a day. Sometimes the Harvard dining halls/dorm environment is just too much for me because there are too many stranger interactions going on. It actually makes me feel more lonely being in a sea of strangers. I understand Harvard’s intentions of wanting us to be around each other and make connections, but I am really looking forward to post-graduation when I can have those “weak tie” interactions with a barista or waitress and then get to choose which friends I see during a day.

  • Esther Xiang // May 14th 2022 at 9:51 pm

    Thank you, Arlo and Jess, for your amazing post! Something I think about deeply quite often is how… We haven’t met everyone we’re going to love yet, and we haven’t met everyone who is going to love us yet. There are people wishing, hoping & needing to meet someone just like you—just as badly as you want to meet someone like them. I recently went on a day trip to NYC, where I felt like I could fully be myself. There was something remarkable about being in an environment full of strangers. You impact everyone you meet, even if you don’t notice it. Your therapist wonders how you’re doing between sessions. People you’ve grown apart from reminiscing about the moments you shared and smiled. Something you said gives someone a reason to live. Your friends start using your favorite phrases without even realizing it. A stranger who always takes the same bus as you wonders where you are when you have a day off. You gave someone the courage to be themselves. Even if you don’t feel like it’s true, your existence matters to people.

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