The first man asks: “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Ireland,” replies the second man.
The first guy responds: “You don’t say, I’m from Ireland too!
Curious, he then asks: “Where in Ireland are you from?”
“Dublin,” comes the reply.
“I can’t believe it,” says the first man. “I’m from Dublin too!
Getting even more animated, he asks: “What school did you go to?”
“Saint Mary’s,” replies the second man. “I graduated in ’72.”
“That is unbelievable! What a small world!” the first man says. “I went to Saint Mary’s and I graduated in ’72, too!” They both start laughing and slapping each other on the back.
About that time, another regular comes in, and sits down at the bar.
“What’s new?” he asks the bartender.
“Nothing much,” replies the bartender, “but the O’Malley twins are drunk again!”
They had forgotten how connected they are. Unfortunately, there is a tragic edge to the joke. Alcohol is one of the ways we self medicate to dull the pain of our imagined isolation. We have other, more subtle, ways too! We bolster our protective walls against intimacy with sarcasm and aloofness or many other cunning ploys, to ensure that we don’t get hurt again. If we do this for long enough, it’s no wonder we forget our connections. There is a little piece of the O”Malley twins in each of us.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are too many opportunities for the joy of connection to sleep through life in a cocoon of self imposed isolation. Connections are powerful. Sometimes you have to search out the people you need at different points in your life. Close friends, who know and understand you, can challenge you and give honest feedback. They truly care for your well being, as you care for theirs. However, make time for new friends as well, and acquaintances who can push and expand your perspective. They help you to see life in new ways. Part two in this series on Six Degrees of Separation is focused on the gift of acquaintances.
Think about ice cubes as a metaphor for new connections. Why do ice cubes float in water? This was the question my 8 year old asked me. Science was never my strong suit, so my answer to these sorts of questions from my kids usually involves the word “Google.” We discovered that an ice cube floats because it is lighter, or less dense, than liquid water. It’s the weak bonding of the hydrogen molecules that creates the floating ice cube. New connections are all about weak bonding.
Our acquaintances are like the weak hydrogen connections that form ice cubes. It’s often the weak connections in life that are so important, both in terms of six degrees of separation and also in terms of growth and networking. The weak connections create the lattice effect that connects you with a much wider group of people. You may know 6 people very well. They are your go-to people with familiarity and a long history. But it’s your weak connection to the person on the fringe of your group, who in turn is tight with a different cluster of close friends, who opens new doors for you.
Maybe this is part of what the author of the Tao te Ching was pointing to with the saying,
In this world there is nothing more supple and weak than water; and yet no one, however strong and powerful he may be, can resist its action; and no being can do without it.
If you looked at the molecules of water in a microscope, you would see a lattice shaped crystal substance. We often think of a vine as a symbol of connection. But we grow vines on lattice. Lattice is an awesome symbol for a network. Before the vine grows, the lattice holds the potential for the vine to grow and spread. It is transparent and patient, offering the structure and support for the vine to flourish. The system of networks on which we all depend; families, extended families, friends, friends of friends, colleagues, social networks etc are like different strands of lattice. Some of them are strong connections, like close family and friends. Some of them are so called weak connections like acquaintances.
Here are three practical benefits to giving attention to your weak ties-
- Fresh Perspective- New people often surprise you with new insights and new perspectives. Andrew McAfee, who writes about the connection between IT and business, said “Weak bonds give you novelty”. We certainly need both weak and strong bonds. Facebook is mainly about strong bonds although fan pages offer some awesome opportunities for new ties. Twitter and Linkedin are the domain of weak bonds, with larger and more loosely connected networks. However the longer I spend on those sites, the stronger the ties are becoming.
- Size and Reach- Weak ties give you new opportunity, and they can expand your reach. You inevitably have more weak ties than strong ones, and they can help to spread your message or cause to greater numbers. All along, you transform many weak ties into strong ones, as you build relationships.
- Strong ties can sometimes limit growth when cliques are formed and the spread of information is curtailed. Weak ties spread information easily and quickly. Your strong ties may be more motivated to help you find a job or a new doctor, but your weak ties will offer more far reaching connections.
The implications of this notion of weak ties are mind blowing when it comes job searching, social activism, social media, urban planning, advertising, business networking and SO many other life issues. It pays to be mindful about the weak ties.
Sociologist Mark Granovetter wrote a ground breaking study on weak ties in the 1970s. It is one of the most cited papers ever in a number of different fields. Granovetter wrote,
Individuals with few bridging weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends.
Ultimately, while this has many practical implications, it is a personal and spiritual issue. Come back to the ice cube. The ice cube melts at room temperature as the hydrogen molecules break down. It’s the same with our relationships. After the ice breaker comes the depth. Any trace of frosty first impressions give way to warmth and new possibilities as the recognition of oneness melts fear and defensiveness. Just as the best way to remove frost is to warm it from the inside, so the best way to open yourself to intimate connections, strong and weak, is to light a candle on the inside and melt your own self judgment. Self acceptance opens you to the joy of intimacy.
Once again I am reminded of the mysterious connectedness of life, the bricolage of beauty that fills our days with meaning. I am grateful for the incredible symmetry in the universe’s networks. There is reason for relationships (ALL relationships). It may seem like people come into your life randomly, but stay awake to the sacred synchronicity that EVERYONE arrives as a messenger as if from beyond to teach you something new about the nature of life and love.
In the words of Anais Nin,
Each friend (and acquaintance) represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.
Because you are surrounded on every side by connections and possibilities, take to heart the words of Rumi,
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.