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What We Lose When We Lose Acquaintances

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Unbelievably, we are nearing the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus lockdown in this country, which means we have all now had more than 300 days to try to figure out how to keep some semblance of a social life. And I am talking now not about Zoom calls or fire pit hangouts with your closest family and friends but about the people you don't know quite well enough to go out of your way to see. Sociologist Mark Granovetter gave these relationships a name - weak ties, people on the periphery of your life - co-workers, maybe other parents on the soccer sidelines, that guy who always said hi at the gym. Well, Amanda Mull writes about them in The Atlantic in a piece titled "The Pandemic Has Erased Entire Categories Of Friendships."

Amanda Mull, welcome.

AMANDA MULL: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: What do we lose when we no longer have access to people who we didn't know all that well in the first place?

MULL: Well, as it turns out, we lose a significant chunk of what makes up a human life. I think that American culture tends to encourage people to seek out all of their emotional and social outlet among people who are their good friends, their partners, their family, things like that. We tend to overemphasize their value. But when we only interact with those people, we lose variety. We lose the opportunity to learn new things, be introduced to new information, to have low-stakes social interactions with people who don't know all of our flaws and secrets and background. We lose serendipity. We lose an opportunity for joy.

KELLY: That's a lot. It's a lot...

MULL: Yes.

KELLY: ...You're saying that we lose. Yeah.

MULL: Yes, we lose a great continuum of types of interactions and emotions.

KELLY: I'm thinking, too, even on the rare occasion where I am interacting with people with whom I have weak ties, it's so different. The guy who cuts my hair and has for many years - and I will confess that I - yes, I have gone to see him a couple times during the pandemic, but it's totally not the same. He's wearing a mask. I'm wearing a mask. We can't really talk. I'm trying to get him out of there really fast. There's none of the serendipity and the joy, to use a couple of the words that you put out there.

MULL: Right. These interactions that we used to have that are transactions, to be fair, and they always were - but when we had the full use of our faculties, when we could smile at people, when we could dawdle, when we could chat, when it wasn't dangerous to be close to people, these transactions had all these other elements that were psychologically satisfying for both parties. And now we don't have a lot of the psychological element. So you strip all the humanity out. Just the transaction remains.

And what we found is that our social interactions with people sort of make us more understanding and make us more generous. And now that we don't have them, it's hurting people's tips. It's hurting Yelp reviews, things like that that make a difference in people's lives and livelihoods.

KELLY: You just said something that is going to stick with me that I've struggled to put my finger on articulating - that so many of the interactions we have these days - the humanity is gone. It's just the transaction that remains. Connect that to another thing that you explore in the piece, which is the loss of weak ties and how that may be contributing to the growth of groups like QAnon this past year.

MULL: Yes. What I found in talking to experts is that people use their weak ties for a sense of grounding, for a sense of community, for a sense of belonging to the world outside of themselves. So you strip those out, and lots of people are going to go looking for them. If the only place available to find community and support is on the Internet, you know, for some people, that will go well. They will find groups that talk about knitting or groups that talk about their favorite baseball team or something like that.

For other people who fall down a different kind of rabbit hole, they're going to find conspiracy groups. They're going to find extremist groups. Those groups specialize in providing a certainty and support and belonging for people who are looking for it. That's how they recruit new members. So you open up all these avenues of support on the Internet, and people who are looking for them because they can't find them in the real world are going to fall into those holes in droves.

KELLY: That's fascinating. Do you think we will start looking at these relationships differently in the post-pandemic world - relationships that we thought were peripheral to our lives, then it turns out maybe they're really central?

MULL: That's my hope, and that's the hope of most of the experts that I spoke to. I think that going a year or more without having all of these people in our lives is a really stark demonstration of all the things that they provide to us. And that's especially true when you think about people who work in types of jobs that aren't well respected in this country - service work, delivery guys, waitresses, bartenders, things like that.

Those people in - the opportunity to interact with them and see them is tremendously psychologically beneficial to the people who patronize those businesses. And I hope that that will cause people to stop and appreciate that work more, to stop and appreciate the people who do it more and to appreciate just all the people that we interact with 'cause those are all the people who make up our human lives.

KELLY: That is Amanda Mull, staff writer at The Atlantic.

Thank you for joining us.

MULL: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.