get to know your neighbors with the latest science on ‘tiny relationships’

An apartment building with two balconies, one above the other.

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Long gone are the days when you could walk to your next door neighbor’s house and borrow a cup of sugar. Sure, when you buy a new home, you may develop a good relationship with your neighbor by throwing a housewarming party. Or you might meet neighbors in the front yard while getting your mail. But moving to a new neighborhood is difficult, and may disrupt your social circle for a while.

The good news is that there is a great way to forge stronger social bonds. Whether you’re trying to meet new neighbors for the first time or build your social circle via a neighborhood event, so-called weak social ties are the key to healthier, happier relationships.

We all have these ties in our lives. They’re marked by a simple gesture or seemingly inconsequential interaction — with neighbors, baristas, mail carriers, and others — in which pleasantries are extended and small talk is exchanged.

Weak social interactions differ from friendships. There’s limited intimacy, and not much of what social scientists call “emotional intensity.”

But a growing body of research shows that “tiny relationships” are a wonderful thing, and can sustain us in important ways.

Here’s what the science says about brief conversations and building relationships. The most important thing to know: casual conversation is a great way to build ties in your community, whether you join a book club, buy a gift card, knock on your neighbor’s front door, or ask for a new neighbor’s phone number to develop new friendships.

Weak ties correlate to happiness.

Small-scale interactions might seem meaningless in the moment — yet the more of them we have, the happier we tend to be.

Research shows we experience more “positive affect,” or good feelings about life, on days when we have more social interactions. Surprisingly, this isn’t true only for extraverted people (who tend to thrive on human interaction). In a 2013 study that controlled for extraversion, weak ties and happiness remained linearly related.

That’s good news for homebodies: even introverts report being happier when they have more weak-tie interactions.

Casual interactions actually make us happy.

But, you may say, correlation doesn’t always mean causation. Maybe those people in the study were happy for other reasons, and that led them to interact more frequently with new people.

The same researchers — led by Dr. Gillian Sandstrom, perhaps the world’s No. 1 authority on weak social ties — aimed to test this out experimentally. They recruited Starbucks customers to either conduct an efficient transaction with minimal conversation, or make small talk while placing their order.

The latter group was instructed to do a few basic things:

– Smile
– Make eye contact to establish a connection
– Have a brief conversation

Choosing to be social, it turns out, delivers lots of benefits. The social group reported higher positive affect, lower negative affect, and more satisfaction with their overall Starbucks experience.

How to be a good neighbor and cultivate casual conversations

Sandstrom’s research points to lots of small steps you can take to increase your sense of community.

After all, weak ties are about casual interactions: enthusing about a common interest, meeting new neighbors, or saying hi to people in your apartment building.

Look for small ways to expand connectedness.

We all have a need to belong, and belonging (or the lack thereof) can manifest in subtle ways.

Humans are social creatures, which means we are highly attuned to minor changes in others’ behavior. Eye contact is one example: failing to receive it can cause feelings of exclusion and lower our self-esteem.

Because “belongingness” refers to how related we feel to others in our community, striving to relate to your neighbors can make all the difference in establishing meaningful weak ties. This may mean:

Making eye contact. Whether it’s your new neighbors or a random passer-by, looking people in the eye is a great way to make them feel seen.

Smiling. As Sandstrom’s Starbucks research showed, a smile goes a long way. And they say it takes more muscles to frown than smile.

Participating in community events. Ice cream socials, block parties, 5Ks: activities that get you in front of your community offer an easy way to build social relations.

Seek out a shared sense of familiarity.

By Sandstrom’s definition, weak-tie relationships are those with whom we have some degree of mutual familiarity.

This can mean friends of friends, fellow gym-goers — or just the people we see in the same section of the grocery store every week.

With these people, consider starting a conversation to find common interests. Or offer a helping hand: a spot on the weight rack, favorite recipes, or a restaurant tip. Minor interests are a great launching point for meaningful conversation, however brief.

“Gamify” your weak-tie socializing.

In a 2022 study, Sandstrom and others had participants conduct a “scavenger hunt” that involved either talking to or observing a stranger.

At the end of a week, the talkers felt less awkward, more confident in their conversational ability, and less likely to be rejected than the control (observer) group.

These findings track with the rest of Sandstrom’s research over the years. What’s notable about this research is that it turned weak-tie socializing into a game.

Games, whether real or digital, utilize our brains’ reward pathways to keep us engaged and provide a sense of accomplishment. It’s why so many video games include boss battles that are much harder than the standard gameplay. When we beat the boss after many tries, we get a bigger dopamine hit than eliminating a standard enemy — making us eager to face the game’s next challenge.

You can achieve the same results as Sandstrom’s research participants by bringing game tactics into your own life. Consider:

– Setting a target for daily interactions. Make a scavenger hunt of your own in which you talk to a certain number of new people every day.

– Exploring new places and seeing who you meet. Unfamiliar surroundings can help us shed our awkwardness and see the world with new eyes.

– Taking on a conversational challenge. Make an effort to talk to someone you never would otherwise.

Be respectful.

While even introverts benefit from weak social interactions, some people genuinely prefer to be left alone — and that’s OK.

As you look to engage other members of your community, it’s a good idea to trust your intuition. If someone doesn’t meet your eye or seem interested in conversing, just move along.

That’s particularly true for opposite-sex interactions, in which unwanted engagement can come off as creepy. Again, trust your gut — if attempting to make brief conversation doesn’t go well, aim your energy elsewhere.

While some people might not respond to your efforts at weak-tie interaction, the overall benefits of weak social ties are too great to be ignored. Sandstrom’s 2013 research put it best:

“Chat with the Starbucks cashier, work colleague, Pilates classmate and dog owner – there is initial evidence that these interactions, and not only interactions with our close friends and family, are associated with our happiness.”

Photo by Robin Ooode on Unsplash.

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