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Just an acquaintance? What we’ve missed as the pandemic robs us of our ‘non-friends’

Rhonda Starkman had a lot of “non-friends” in her life. 

The 57-year-old Toronto woman has lived alone for a number of years, but her social calendar was filled with serendipitous moments of connection. Every Friday, Starkman would visit The Keg at the corner of Yonge and Eglinton, where she would exchange pleasantries with people who looked familiar, though she barely knew them.

At the neighbourhood nail salon, she’d once struck up a conversation with the woman beside her. The two would see each other often over four years, exchanging life stories and advice without sharing a phone number.

“I don’t even know her name,” Starkman said. 

These connections may seem meaningless, but for Starkman and others, the noncommittal relationships are a lifeline. They’re an anchor to a community, or a link to new perspectives that wouldn’t otherwise be exposed when someone is limited to their close group of friends. Research shows us these weaker relationships not only make us happier, but can help us live longer and become more successful. 

Since the pandemic, these relationships have mostly ceased in hot-spot regions. Nail salons and dance studios are closed, bars and restaurants can only serve takeout, and classrooms and networking opportunities with colleagues have shifted to the Internet — where organic ways of connecting are seldom possible. 

People have retreated inwards to protect one another for almost a year now, resorting to Zoom, social media and phone calls to remain connected. But many are still mourning their old lives and, surprisingly, the weak ties that came with them.

“It’s that layer of connectedness that has disappeared,” said Suzanne Manvell, a Toronto real estate agent. 

Manvell has been an active member of her community throughout her adult life. She attended dance classes regularly, hosted open houses as a real estate agent and actively engaged in philanthropic projects through her local Rotary club.

She recently reflected on a sunny, warm day pre-pandemic, when she noticed a young man drinking matcha tea at a cafe while strolling along the neighbourhood with her friend. Awestruck by the man’s style and demeanour, she asked to take a picture of him. They engaged in small talk when she discovered that he, too, was a dancer.

The two then said goodbye and went their separate ways. They since saw each other regularly around the neighbourhood, sometimes exchanging nothing more than a nod or a smile. But these small encounters never ceased to brighten Manvell’s day. 

“It feels like you’re belonging to something bigger,” she said.

Science has proven that Manvell isn’t alone in her appreciation of these weaker connections. In fact, research has shown these connections are not a want, but are rather a necessary component of happiness and longevity.

It’s a phenomenon that Gillian Sandstrom, a professor of psychology at the University of Essex in England, has studied extensively after noticing how a small encounter at a hot dog stand during her years as a Ryerson University graduate student had affected her. 

“I somehow accidentally developed a relationship with the lady at the hot dog stand,” Sandstrom said. “It’s not that I was buying hot dogs, it’s just every time that I’d walk past, we’d smile at each other.”

Seeing the woman made Sandstrom “feel really good,” and has left her wondering whether it’s possible these small connections with strangers could be a source of wellbeing. 

Sandstrom went on to study these encounters further. She recruited participants at a local Starbucks and instructed some to order their coffee quickly, while others were told to strike up a conversation with the barista.

After interviewing the participants, Sandstrom noticed those who chatted with their barista were in a better mood and reported a feeling of meaningful connection. 

These findings “gelled with my own experience with the hot dog lady,” she said. “It made me feel good but it also made me feel this sense of being anchored and belonging there.”

Taryn Grieder, a professor and researcher at the University of Toronto’s Donnelly Centre who specializes in behavioural neuroscience and psychology, said pleasant social encounters with others release oxytocin in the brain. This dampens stress, as it’s structurally similar to the hormone cortisol.

“We’re not going out and having these social interactions that lead to this oxytocin release,” Grieder said. She added that the pandemic has compounded our stress levels, but we haven’t been able to apply the salve of socialization.

“It’s a really vicious cycle,” Grieder said. 

This affects our health, mental and physical, Grieder added. She pointed to the existence of “blue zones” — places in the world where people are said to live the longest — and how this longevity has been tied to small communities in Greece or Japan where people interact with one another daily.

“The social connection of the community that they live in enhances their quality of life so much that they’re living the longest.”

Other research suggests connections with people in our outer circle also contribute to the likelihood of finding employment and networking with others. It’s something Grieder can relate to as a professor after seeing how her classroom dynamics have shifted with the switch to online learning.

Many students, she said, won’t turn on their camera or unmute themselves to ask a question. It is a stark difference from the days when students would linger after class to ask questions, or socialize with one another during breakout activities. 

“There are no reference letters being written by me right now,” Grieder said, as virtual classes have given her limited opportunities to connect with her newer students. 

But Marija Padjen, the director at Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health, said she is careful to remind students that not all hope is lost despite their inability to forge these important connections the same way they used to.

“By no means am I naive enough to say that is the same as it was, but there has been a very conscious effort by colleges and universities to create and ensure that those social networks are happening within the restrictions,” Padjen said. 

At Queen’s University, for example, the Cooking With Grandma program, which brings students and seniors from the Queen’s Women’s Association together to share and learn recipes, has been successfully moved online. Padjen said this has broken down many misconceptions about seniors and technology, and has normalized achieving that meaningful connection online.

The key, Padjen added, is that students actively participate in these programs if they can when they’re missing elements of networking in their lives. If symptoms of isolation worsen for any reason, she said she encourages students to reach out for mental health help.

For some, nothing can substitute the warmth felt through a serendipitous smile from a stranger or a friendly wave. But Sandstrom said she reminds herself that these connections aren’t all lost. 

She suggested planning group Zoom meetings with people we don’t typically see or hear from as much. A larger group is better, she said, as everyone can get a chance to interact with one another without the pressure of a one-on-one phone call. 

Another suggestion is to continue to interact meaningfully from a safe distance with the people we do still see from time to time: our neighbours, our delivery courier, our mail carrier or our concierge. 

Fear of COVID-19 has forced us inwards, but Sandstrom said interacting safely with people we encounter is a good way to maintain social connections while ensuring our social skills don’t disappear. 

“I worry that people are overlooking the opportunities that we do still have.” 

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