April 22, 2013

The Power of Acquaintances

Wayne mellingerBy Wayne Mellinger

Instructor, Antioch University

Casual connections might be some of the most consequential relations in our lives, helping us to land jobs, deal with our personal issues, and providing us with a sense of identity and belonging.  And in our world of social media, such as Facebook, modern humans probably have more casual acquaintances than most humans ever have had before.

An “acquaintance” is someone who falls between a stranger and an intimate.  They lie outside one’s inner circle of close friends and family, but are not totally unknown as a stranger might be.

Acquaintances might include people we routinely encounter in our everyday lives—people we see daily at the coffee shop, people we take a class with at our local community college, and even people with whom we share intimate details of our personal lives at self-help group meeting, such as Alcoholic Anonymous.  They might be the people who care for our children every day, the people we know from social movement activism, or the elderly neighbors who live down the street.

Unlike intimates, acquaintances have particular (and limited) types of knowledge about one another.  We might simply know another person’s first name and that they sell pomegranates and oranges at the farmer’s market. 

The difference between acquaintances and intimates has to do with, for example, the length of time of the relationship, the amount of intimacy, its emotional intensity, and the level of reciprocity.  Obviously, there is a fluidity in our relationships, with people moving in and out of our inner circles.

In one of the most widely cited articles in social science research, Mark Granovetter’s 1973 study, explores “the strength of weak ties”.  Acquaintances can play crucial roles in our lives.  Specifically, he demonstrated that employment opportunities were more likely to derive from less intimate community ties than from close family and intimate friends.

Subsequent research on social networks demonstrates that resources, information and new connections—which generates “social capital”—are the outcome of weak ties in all spheres of social life, not just employment.

Because we have weak ties with our acquaintances, they tend to be much more diverse than our intimates.  By contrast, close friends are often limited to people who are very similar to ourselves in essential ways.

Acquaintances are responsible for the flow of much new information to us because they know people we do not.  They connect us with a broader set of social networks than do our close friends and families, who often know the same people as we do.  In our increasingly urban lives, acquaintances play important roles such as anchoring individuals to the larger community. 

 

Walking through my neighborhood, greeting joggers, chatting with people walking their dogs, and waving to people sitting on their porches, I feel at home and connected to my community.

Higher status people typically have a wider variety of acquaintances.  Having varied connections improves one’s chances of having useful contacts, including people who might be hiring, or who might help us in other innumerable other ways.

Acquaintances can help us deal with our personal issues in various ways.  They are the fellow members are in support groups, whether it be Weight Watchers, Twelve Step meetings, or church groups.  Chances are that if you see a helping professional of any kind--therapist, social worker, or case manager—you might consider these people with whom you might disclose your most private concerns as one of your acquaintances.

If self- identities are formed, in part, by placing ourselves into another’s shoes and imagining how they judge our behavior, a process symbolic interactionists refer to as “role-taking” , then my sense of self as a student, a yoga practitioner, or as a Starbucks barista comes from doing role-taking with people who are probably acquaintances.

One of the central ways in which we “do” acquaintanceship has to do with the norms of etiquette in public places.  When their eyes meet on a busy street or in a crowded department store, acquaintances are able to show that they recognize each other.  By contrast, strangers typically avoid extended eye contact and refrain from engaging in conversation, a ritual sociologist Erving Goffman refers to as “civil inattention” .

Depending on the social context and the quality of the relationship, norms of civility might require that acquaintances briefly exchange greetings and pleasantries. 

When we say “it takes a village,” we are acknowledging the role that acquaintances might play in very important aspects of our everyday lives, such as teaching our children, watching over the safety of our homes, or attending a religious service with us.

Indeed, the very moral character of a community and the health of its democratic polity, are often reflected through the liveliness of these subtle and ephemeral encounters in public.

 

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Comments

do you have family in ohio? im just wondering because i never see any other mellingers!

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