There’s a scene in either a David Lodge or a Malcolm Bradbury novel, in which a couple are in the bathroom drawing up their guest list for a party, when the husband turns to his wife and asks, in weariness and desperation: “Who do we know who we don’t know?” Despite my confusion about which particular novel and which particular author — and with apologies to both of them — I’ve thought of that scene very precisely every time I’ve tried to draw up a list for a party over the 35-odd years since I read whichever novel by whichever author. In a very different way, it has been in my mind over the past few months; but now it feels as if it has a particular resonance.
This is not because I’m wearying of my friends or thirsting for fresh blood. Far from it: I draw immense comfort from the many ways my friendships are interwoven in the very fabric of my life. But this fabric is woven from other threads too, although they are looser ones; these are the people whom, in a manner of speaking, I don’t know. And what I have grown to appreciate is how very important they are. This is scarcely original: it is the theory of “weak ties”, a term that I feel does little to convey how important these connections are.
Of course, in some instances, it is appropriate enough. For me, a weak tie adequately describes that loose link I have with people with whom I might do no more than exchange pleasantries: the Ocado delivery-van driver (and yes, I do know I’m a middle-class cliché) or the person I see regularly sitting outside the café that I pass on the way to the corner shop or chemist. Neither could be said to be a relationship, but both form part of the network of importantly inconsequential communications that make me feel like a human in the world, rather than a mere isolated individual.
But there are deeper connections in my life that would still be categorised as weak ties, and which to me feel anything but. The daily chats I have with David, my postman, the weekly sessions of putting the world to rights with Rex the fishmonger, are not mere niceties, but the establishing of real relationships. And I know that the accepted benefit of these so-called weak ties is generally held to be that when we talk to those outside our close circle, we receive different “information” and thus broaden our experience of the world, but to me it seems increasingly clear that what these exchanges give us is a different sense of ourselves.
With friends we reveal what we think of as our true selves: we show our vulnerability and we voice our deeper concerns. And this is wonderful, but it is also emotionally taxing, although I am also willing to believe that it may be more of a feature of female friendships. But when we chat with people we wouldn’t think to ring when there’s a crisis at two in the morning, we are, in a sense, our better selves. Or certainly, our idealised selves: there is something gloriously uplifting about chatting with people one wouldn’t moan to. It shakes us out of our patterns and habits, and allows us to inhabit a cheery personality that isn’t false or assumed, but springs spontaneously. It’s as if, in these condensed exchanges, we don’t have time to be burdened with the heavy complexity of life, and can enjoy the lightness of social interaction.
At its heart, of course, it’s also about community. I’d go mad if I lived in an actual village, but we all need a bit of village life. And chatting with those we come across because of where we live, or what our daily or weekly activities are, gives us that and, even better, gives us the pure upside of it, without — and it’s the Londoner in me talking, perhaps — the claustrophobia.
I have always found those casual conversations and gentle banter with those who feature significantly in my life but are not emotionally entangled in it a source of joy. But I have grown to realise how essential they are in letting us feel connected to an often elusive sense of optimism about life in general. In the seemingly superficial exchanges, we perhaps express our deepest belief in a shared humanity. And we have a laugh too. There’s a strong case to be made for weak ties.