There are three types of students at the University of Michigan. There are the people you know well, the people you don’t know at all and then the most overlooked group of all: acquaintances. These are the students we know somewhat, perhaps from a class or from our dorm, but we don’t see them often or engage with them regularly. We might exchange a brief smile or half-hearted wave if our paths cross, but we largely pay these people little mind. This is mainly because these ties don’t seem very important.
They’re usually not impacting our daily lives or deeply related to most things we’re dealing with. However, these connections are crucial to the strength of our campus community, a testament to our sense of togetherness and a catalyst for social development in college.
About a week ago, I was speed walking down State Street from a rushed lunch to a midterm study session when I ran into an old friend from my dorm last year. The two of us chatted briefly, exchanging pleasantries and sharing our mutual feeling that it had been too long since we last saw each other. Despite the fact that we had obviously grown apart, I couldn’t help but smile as I made my way to the library. In that fleeting moment, I was reminded that the connections I’ve made in college matter far more than the parts of college life that cause me anxiety.
Exams, relationships, internships, clubs — these are all vital to the college experience. But when one of these things are bringing you down or causing you stress, a simple conversation with an acquaintance can be enough to lift your spirits. Among sociologists, casual connections like these are commonly referred to as “weak ties,” but their impact on our well-being is anything but weak. Studies show that interactions with acquaintances improve people’s positive moods and reduce their odds of negative moods. Running into an acquaintance can be the difference between a woe-filled walk to class and a vibrant autumn day on the Diag.
What makes acquaintances so significant is the fact they aren’t going to be your best friends — and they don’t need to be. They don’t require the time and energy that comes with your intimate relationships, but they still provide you with a sense of belonging and a slew of opportunities. When life is especially busy and it’s hard to have time for anyone other than close friends, your weak ties are one of the only ways you can reach people outside of your social circle. Furthermore, not seeing these people every day can actually be to your benefit, as they can introduce you to aspects of life that you haven’t experienced before. For example, when I saw someone I took a class with two semesters ago on Halloween, she told me all about what the theater scene was like at the University. I hadn’t seen her in months, but since our connection remained, I was able to learn more about all that the University has to offer.
However, the power of weak ties doesn’t just stem from how they broaden your perspective or improve your mood; they are vital to networking and the benefits that come with it. From the moment students step foot on campus, networking is supposed to be a top priority. We are instructed to make friends, to join clubs and organizations and to create our LinkedIn profiles as soon as possible in the efforts of building connections that will aid us in the future. In this world, where your network is your net worth, weak ties are actually the most important connections of all.
According to Weak Tie Theory, a person’s weak ties are actually more helpful than strong ones in career advancement and securing employment. The basis of this phenomenon lies in the fact that your weak ties are connected to networks outside your own which are likely to include people with more knowledge or experience in your desired field. So, if your goal in college is to build meaningful connections that will assist you in your careers, acquaintances and old friends are probably the best place to look.
In a largely digital world where the number of weak ties is immeasurable, acquaintances are more easily accessible than ever. It might be common to fall out of touch with people due to the fast-paced nature of a university environment, but interacting digitally allows even greater opportunities to bolster these connections and use them to your advantage socially and professionally.
Those brief conversations or quick waves can and should traverse into the digital sphere, not simply for the sake of convenience, but for the sake of building a university community we can all be proud to call our own. So, the next time you run into an acquaintance on the street or connect with an old friend on LinkedIn, I implore you to try a little harder to cultivate these bonds. We must not let our weak ties grow weaker, but instead enrich these relationships in an effort to better ourselves and our community as a whole.
Max Feldman is an Opinion Columnist who writes about campus culture. He can be reached at email@example.com.