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Why We Need All the Acquaintances We Can Get

Neighbors and baristas turn out to be crucial members of your social network.

The benefits of strong family and social relationships have been documented in hundreds of studies. Compared to those whose connections are weaker, people with strong friendships and family bonds enjoy significantly greater emotional well-being, better psychological and physical health, and even increased longevity.

But what about acquaintances?

We tend to have far more acquaintances than we do friends, of course—the neighbors you nod hello to; the colleague across the hall with whom you exchange a few sentences of chit-chat; the barista who knows your name and order by heart; your occasional work-out partner at the gym; your hairdresser or barber; the other owners you chat with at the local dog run; or the friends of friends you see at the occasional party.

On average, we tend to have extremely close ties with between four and 10 people and somewhat close ties with between 12 and 40. But when participants in one study were asked to note everyone they interacted with over 100 days, the average number of people reported was 440. While not all the people in the periphery of our social networks qualify as actual acquaintances, a significant number do.

The question is: Do those acquaintances impact our emotional health and well-being?

Gillian M. Sandstrom and Elizabeth W. Dunn of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver conducted a series of studies to explore that very question. They found that people with a greater number of casual acquaintances tended to be happier, and that the more interactions they had with those acquaintances, the happier they were.

Until this research, acquaintances had been almost entirely neglected in social psychological research. Therefore it was somewhat surprising to discover that acquaintances have a greater impact on our happiness than was previously thought.

In a separate field study, people who were instructed to have a genuine social interaction with the cashier at a Starbucks—the kind one would have with an acquaintance rather than a stranger—reported being in a better mood afterward than people who were instructed to have a simply efficient interaction with the cashier.

In a final study, people who were instructed to increase the number of interactions they had with acquaintances over the course of a week reported a decrease in feelings of loneliness.

This research is important because loneliness is extremely damaging to our emotional and physical health. Further, it can be very difficult to break the cycle of behavioral patterns and social stigma that maintain one’s social or emotional isolation. (For more, read Why Loneliness is a Trap and How to Break Free.)

These findings provide a broad new spectrum of opportunities for lonely people, who might find it easier and less emotionally risky to increase their interactions with casual acquaintances than with closer friends and family. The circumscribed nature of interactions with acquaintances, and the absence of a specific expectation of outcome, make them far less risky in terms of rejection or disappointment, compared with, say, asking a friend to get together or a potential romantic partner for a date.

While there is certainly more research to be done, Sandstrom and Dunn have already expanded how we think about our weak social ties and their practical as well as potential importance in our daily lives.

Photo: Olesia Bilkei/Shutterstock

Find out about my own experiences with loneliness on my TED talk here:

For more about enhancing connections to others and for a comprehensive look at the psychological and physical impact of loneliness check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

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