In May, Vincent Keenan traveled from Chicago to Charlottesville, Virginia, for a wedding – his first trip out of town since the start of the pandemic.
“Hi there!” he called out to customers at a gas station where he’d stopped on his way to the airport. “How’s your day going?” he said he asked the Transportation Security Administration officer who checked his ID.
“Isn’t this wonderful?” he exclaimed to guests at the wedding, most of whom were strangers.
“I was striking up conversations with people I didn’t know everywhere I went,” said Keenan, 65, who retired in December as chief executive officer of the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians. “Even if they just grunted at me, it was a great day.”
It wasn’t only close friends Keenan missed seeing during 15 months of staying home and trying to avoid Covid-19. It was also dozens of casual acquaintances and people whom he ran into at social events, restaurants, church and other venues.
These relationships with people we hardly know or know only superficially are called “weak ties” – a broad and amorphous group that can include your neighbors, your pharmacist, members of your book group or fellow volunteers at a nearby school.
Like Keenan, who admitted he’s an unabashed extrovert, many older adults are renewing these connections with pleasure after losing touch during the pandemic.
Casual relationships have several benefits, according to researchers who’ve studied them. These ties can cultivate a sense of belonging, provide bursts of positive energy, motivate us to engage in activities, and expose us to new information and opportunities – all without the emotional challenges that often accompany close relationships with family and friends.
Multiple studies have found that older adults with a broad array of “weak” as well as “close” ties enjoy better physical and psychological well-being and live longer than people with narrower, less diverse social networks. Also, older adults with broad, diverse social networks have more opportunities to develop new relationships when cherished friends or family members move away or die.
“Feeling connected to other people, not just the people who are closest to you, turns out to be incredibly important,” said Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Essex in England.
Sandstrom’s research has found that people who talk to more acquaintances on a daily basis tend to be happier than people who have fewer of these interactions. Even talking to strangers makes people feel less lonely and more trusting, she has discovered.
Claire Lomax, 76, of Oakland, California, who’s unmarried, has made a practice of chatting with strangers all her life. Among her greatest pleasures in recent years was volunteering at the Oakland Police Department, where she would ask patrol officers about their families or what was happening at the station.
“I never wanted a man of my own, but I like to be around them,” she explained. “So, I got to have my guy buzz without any complications, and I felt recognized and appreciated,” Lomax said. Since becoming fully vaccinated, she’s volunteering in person at the police stations again – a deep source of satisfaction for her.
Even people who describe themselves as introverts enjoy the positivity that casual interactions can engender.
“In fact, people are more likely to have purely positive experiences with weak ties” because emotional complications are absent, said Katherine Fiori, chair of the psychology department at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.
Lynn Eggers, 75, a retired psychologist who lives in Minneapolis, loved going to coffee shops and the gym before Covid-19 hit. “In both places, you can be in a group and alone,” she said. “You can choose to talk to someone or not. But you feel you’re part of the community.”
At a nearby light-rail station, Eggers would strike up conversations with strangers: two police officers who told her about growing up in Somalia, a working-class Texan whose daughter won a scholar