One thing I’ve done a lot less of in the past 8 years of working from home is interact with strangers and acquaintances out in the physical world. In previous jobs, I’d pass people in parking lots or hallways, I’d run errands on the way to and from work, I’d talk, with my voice instead of text, to people in the office.
I haven’t consciously missed these small interactions. They’re not significant like being with my family and close friends. I hadn’t really thought of them at all until I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast episode called Relationships 2.0: The Power of Tiny Interactions. In the show, they talk about how the social isolation of the pandemic removed these little interactions from everyone’s lives, not just those of us who have worked from home for a while, and that maybe these interactions have significance after all. The wave to your neighbor walking their dog, the barista who smiles big and starts prepping your favorite coffee when you walk in the door, the chit chat about this weekend’s football game with your regular cashier at the supermarket — all of these interactions make us feel good. They make us feel connected, and less lonely.
The psychologist on the show, Gillian Sandstrom, talked about being a deeply introverted person, and how her dream as a child was to live on an island with her books so she could just be by herself and not have to interact with people. But at some point in her career, maybe when she was in graduate school, I can’t remember, there was a hot dog stand she walked by every day on her way to her office. At that hot dog stand was the hot dog lady. Sandstrom formed what’s called a weak tie with the hot dog lady: they’d smile and wave every day, and sometimes they’d chat. They weren’t best friends — they didn’t have a strong-tie relationship like we have with our partners, family, and friends — but they had a mutual, friendly familiarity.
On days when the hot dog lady wasn’t there, Sandstrom noticed in herself a small disappointment, a letdown, because of that absence. Though the hot dog lady isn’t someone she would have called up during the isolation of Covid lockdown, because we really only stayed connected with our strong ties during that time, the small smiles and chats were an important part of her human connections. She was surprised by this letdown, and it led her to wonder, are these weak ties more significant than we thought?
It turns out, yes. Small interactions with people we don’t know well, or at all, do contribute to our well-being. A smile and a quick chat with the person checking you in at the hotel, striking up a conversation with someone at the park, in a cafe, on a bus, while you wait somewhere — all of these provide little boosts in our connections with humanity. They are relationships, albeit small ones, and they make us and those we interact with feel good.
Something that really jumped out at me in the episode, especially now that I’m in my late 40s and many of my close relationships have spanned decades, is that these tiny social interactions inject novelty into your life that may otherwise be lacking in your day to day. As a person whose worked from home for several years, I can confirm that my days are pretty much all the same. What goes on at work is different each day, but my daily routine doesn’t change a lot, I interact with mostly the same people every day, and Zoom is no substitute for the ambiance and change in physical space of being with one another in real life.
Tiny interactions with strangers, not through a laptop screen or through words in a book, have the potential to bring a freshness that I otherwise might not find.
I wrote yesterday about feeling good about my mind and body connections, but wondered how to hook my spirit in as well. I think connecting with people in the physical world is one way for me to do this. This will require me to put myself in situations where I can do that.
On Tuesday, I worked from a cafe, which I never do, to get myself out of the house and around people. While I was there, working and sipping my mocha, I helped a man at the table next to me connect to the wifi. It felt nice. I want more of that.