I've never met some of my friends. I work virtually, so I interact with my coworkers on daily conference calls. At least one I've never met in person, yet often he's the first voice I hear every day. We talk about our dogs and our jobs, the weather and our families.
Similarly, I know lots of people in rescue who I interact with via social media. We send messages back and forth about dogs that need help or training tips. I'll never meet many of them or even talk with them on the phone. But they still play a key part of my life.
It's easy to believe that the friends who really matter are your BFFs — the ones you open your soul to about your hopes, dreams and failures or the friends you've had since high school. But a recent story in The New York Times points out that you also need a network of low-stakes, casual friendships. These lightweight liaisons offer all sorts of benefits. The more you have, the more connected you'll feel to your community and the less lonely you'll feel.
Why 'weak ties' make you strong
Sociologist Mark S. Granovetter of Johns Hopkins University refers to these casual relationships as "weak ties." His research found that weak ties can help people build bridges, for example assisting them find jobs and other connections. They can also help them feel more involved in the community by having links to social groups.
Weak ties or these peripheral relationships can include parents in the school carpool line, the cashier at the grocery store, and neighbors you meet when you walk your dog.
A 2014 study found that although these casual interactions might not seem very helpful, they actually benefit your social and emotional well-being.
Talking to people you meet throughout the day when you're running errands or working also expands not just your social circle, but your worldview, the Times story points out. You're chatting with people who might not have everything in common with you, but still becoming richer from the interaction.
In addition, by asking questions of your hairstylist or your neighbor, you're learning more about them than your likely first impression. That changes your view of them and, from that, alters your view of the bigger picture around you.
Fewer friends as we age
Young adults amass lots of friends but by the mid-20s when responsibilities increase and free time dwindles, so does the number of friendships. As we get older, we no longer have the need to be out with friends all the time. But that doesn't mean we don't still benefit from relationships — even super-casual ones.
Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer of psychology at the University of Essex, studies social interactions. She found that sustaining these minor connections keeps us involved in the community, particularly after a move away from close friends and family or after the loss of a loved one.
"A lot of us think it's not worth our time to have those kinds of interactions, that they can't possibly provide any meaning," Sandstrom tells the Times. "We're focused on whatever is next and we don't stop and take that second to enjoy the moment."
How to make more friends
If you don't normally chat to the people around you, you may want to start.
Experts suggest taking the time to talk to people you might normally overlook. Instead of just thanking a waiter or clerk, strike up a conversation. Make a point to talk to a familiar, friendly face you see often at the gym or when you walk in the park.
Don't just ask about the weather or some generic, "How's your day going?" Take time to get to know that person so the exchange and relationship becomes more meaningful for both of you. The more often you chat and the more involved the discussion becomes, the more likely a friendship of some sort will blossom.