None of the experts I spoke with had a good term for this kind of middle ground—the weaker points of Granovetter’s proposed inner circle and the strongest of the weak ties—except for the general one. “Friend is a very promiscuous word,” William Rawlins, a communications professor at Ohio University who studies friendship, told me. “Do we have a word for this array of friends that aren’t our close friends? I’m not sure we do, and I’m not sure we should.”
The extent to which individuals are separated from their moderate and weak ties during the pandemic varies by their location, employment, and willingness to put themselves and others at risk. But even in places where it’s possible to work out in gyms and eat inside restaurants, far fewer people are taking part in these activities, changing the social experience for both patrons and employees. And even if your job requires you to come in to work, you and your colleagues are likely adhering to some kind of protocol intended to reduce interaction. Masks, though necessary, mean you can’t tell when people smile at you.
Friends are sometimes delineated by the ways we met or the things we do together—work friends, old college buddies, beer-league-softball teammates—but they’re all friends, and Rawlins thinks that’s for the best. “Living well isn’t some cloistered retreat with just a few folks,” he told me. “The way worlds are created is by people sharing with and recognizing each other.” Many different kinds of relationships are important, he says, and man does not thrive on close friendships alone.
This realization, new to me, is also somewhat new in the general understanding of human behavior. Close relationships were long thought to be the essential component of humans’ social well-being, but Granovetter’s research led him to a conclusion that was at the time groundbreaking and is still, to many people, counterintuitive: Casual friends and acquaintances can be as important to wellbeing as family, romantic partners, and your closest friends. In his initial study, for example, he found that the majority of people who got new jobs through social connections did so through people on the periphery of their lives, not close relations.
Some of the most obvious consequences of our extended social pause could indeed play out in the professional realm. I started hearing these concerns months ago, while writing a story on how working from home affects people’s careers. According to the experts I spoke with, losing the incidental, repeated social interactions that physical workplaces foster can make it especially difficult for young people and new hires to establish themselves within the complex social hierarchy of a workplace. Losing them can make it harder to progress in work as a whole, access development opportunities, and be recognized for your contributions. (After all, no one can see you or what you’re doing.) These kinds of setbacks early in professional life can be especially devastating, because the losses tend to compound—fall behind right out of the gate, and you’re more likely to stay there.