A friend shared an article this week from the Atlantic written by Amanda Mull (The Pandemic Is Resetting Casual Friendships – The Atlantic) about the impact of the pandemic on social ties. The content isn’t revolutionary, cutting-edge, or original, but I really like the way she explains the breakdown. In essence, she uses the standard sociological explanations of people having different types of friendships, acquaintances, etc. radiating out from your “self” and talks about the tier 3 and beyond links that have been severed due to the isolation.
Tier 1 is your immediate social network and would normally include your family and best friends. In short, the ones that you likely included in your “bubble” or “pod”.
Tier 2 is your expanded network of friends, family and all your immediate coworkers. Some people put coworkers in Tier 1 since you see them every day, but one thing the pandemic has made clear is how those coworkers are different from people who are in your pod.
While Tier 1 is still restrictive, it mostly remains “in-person”. People you still see and interact with in-person, albeit in different ways. Tier 2, by contrast, has almost entirely gone digital with Zoom calls. Everyone knows about the impacts on those groups, it’s very clear, no big surprises left there.
Tier 3, by contrast, is the “extended” friends who might not even be considered “friends” in some cases, merely people who are regular acquaintances with whom you are friendly (the “weak ties” of social interactions in your normal in-person day to day life). Mull uses the example of a social group she used to see regularly at a bar to watch football games with, but lots of people have these groups. Trivia friends. Hobby or association friends. Another example from the article is the barista who knows your favorite drink and has it ready for you when you get to the counter. The little added touch that someone a bit distant socially says, “I see you”.
While Mull calls them “casual friends”, I often think of them as almost transactional friendships. For me, some of my best examples coalesce around food service.
When I was away at university out West, and living in residence, we had a small crew who regularly ate together. As we would go through the dining line, we would occasionally chat with the cashiers. We didn’t know them well, but if we were about to line up, we would often move to the line up of the one we knew, if she was working. For me, it was a bit of comfort too. The sense of familiarity. Our conversations never even progressed to names. We just said “hello”, or maybe if the line wasn’t too rushed, maybe we’d talk about the weather, or plans for the weekend. Idle chatter.
Later when I was living out of residence during the summer, and working full-time while most of my school friends had moved back home, I found dinner time a bit lonely. I didn’t want to go home, I wanted a bit of social interaction, and I would frequently go to a local family restaurant where there were about 30 tables, and a small set of waitresses, five or six regulars. While I liked all of them, I would frequently choose to sit in a specific section of one of the waitresses. Sometimes I would even ask to sit in Kat’s section. I didn’t know her well, it was just that we would normally chat for 2-3 minutes while I was ordering. Sometimes it was about law school — her father taught at the university, and she was thinking about trying for it, but she wasn’t sure if it was what she wanted to do. Sometimes it was about books, as I usually had one with me for reading. Or the weather, whatever. I suspect too that her coworkers likely teased her about me, because I would request her section. They likely assumed, incorrectly, that I had a romantic interest in her. I didn’t, I just liked interacting with her. I found her refreshingly lively when I was feeling a bit lonely. One night, our conversation seemed to have a different edge to it, almost like she was leading it somewhere. Since I’m generally dense about women, any thoughts I had at the time were likely to have been erroneous but there seemed to be a different feel to the conversation, including four or five directed comments that seemed to lead to her telling me what time she got off work. I suspected, but had no way of knowing, if she was hinting I should ask her out, which I did not do. Ironically, I would have been happy to have gone for a drink or something as a friend, just to get to know her better, but I wasn’t in a mental place to be dating anyone, if even that was what she was suggesting, if she was suggesting anything at all. I also know the limitations of friendships that start the way they did.
Amanda Mull’s article, though, suggested she does go deeper with her interactions:
Of the dozens of fellow fans and bar employees I’d greet with a hug on a normal fall Saturday, I follow only a handful of them on social media; for most of the others, I know only their first name, if that. But many comforted me through mutual, bone-deep disappointment, or sprayed champagne at me in exhilaration.
I did not, of course, ever greet the serving staff with a hug. Nor was I greeted by the regulars in the bar with a round of “Norm!” when I entered Cheers. And yet, I have had a similar “Cheers” experience of sorts, of being the regular barfly.
When I was still in the office, I would frequently stop by the restaurant downstairs multiple times a week for lunch. Some of that is laziness in that I don’t like heating up leftovers at work, but I do like hot lunches, and some of it is that I like the comfort of people being around without having to interact with them very much.
For work, I would go in, sit at the small bar with about 8 other rotating regulars, and eat my lunch. Usually I was also reading something, news or a book, or working on something from my website sometimes. The “buzz” around me was soothing, like being part of something without being part of something. It’s the same experience most people get in going to a coffee shop. There are people around but you don’t have to interact with them if you don’t want to do so. And if you do, well, most of them will quickly move away from you. 🙂
Anyway, back to work. For my regular visits, I would see 2-3 regulars fairly often, enough that I got to know their names and generally where they work. One is an IT guy named Chris, another was a lawyer. There were others, but they never said much. I’ve had regular conversations with Chris over, say, a five year period. I don’t know his last name, and outside of knowing he’s into Star Trek, most of our conversations were mostly superficial. If he died, I wouldn’t go to his funeral, I didn’t know him that well, but it would make me sad, and I would miss him.
For the workers, there were 2-3 who always had a friendly smile, a warm welcome, maybe an extra dose of fries when something in the kitchen was taking too long. They’d refill my drink faster, they’d stop by to chat, they check in on me. Friendly, sure, and attentive.
But, again, there are two giant factors in those interactions.
First and foremost, and going back to the example out west of the waitress who may or may not of been suggesting I ask her out, the entire relationship is, well, fake. She (and it is often a she) is literally paid to be nice to customers. Is she nicer to me than someone else? Maybe, or maybe she likes bigger tips, or it’s just because I’m low maintenance as a customer. I don’t make inappropriate comments, I don’t freak out if she forgets my drink, I’m not pissed if the kitchen is taking longer than normal. I don’t go for drama, and I don’t create drama. In, eat, get out. I want the noise and buzz around me, not a problem.
Second, and perhaps equally important, there is nothing invested in the relationship. Its nature, aside from being transactional, is also superficial. Who is going to get angsty about a passing comment about the weather? Like most people in casual situations, you don’t openly start conversations with strangers about income, politics or religion. And if there’s a drunk sitting next to you at the bar, they tend to shut up if you ignore them enough. So they are “problem-free” friendships because, generally-speaking, you don’t interact deeply enough for anyone to HAVE a problem.
Even if I discount commerce-based friendships as real friendships, I miss them. I stopped in to work back in June to pick some gear up, and top of my list for the visit was to swing by the restaurant to see what was going on. I remember back in March, just as we were debating what was going to happen, the one waitress was asking what we thought would happen. And I said quite openly that I thought we were going to get sent home, and likely for an extended period.
Which of course was devastating news for her. She worked in a restaurant that mainly served people who worked in the building. If the building closed down, she would have no customers; no customers, no work; no work, no hours; no hours, no pay. The restaurant was still open in June, but there were no serving staff, they were let go long before then. It was the owner and a cook, that was it. And I wonder how she’s doing.
When I visited Victoria a couple of years after I was in Ottawa, just back for a visit, I made a special point of going back to the restaurant just to see who was still there. I knew nobody who was working, and it made me sad. More than a lack of connection at the university, more than the loss of friends who had all moved away, I was saddened by the thought that these “fake” commerce-based friends were gone. The sense of comfort of eating there was also gone. It was just food.
While I wish the article delineated between different types of those friendships, I feel the burn of the rest of the losses.
I miss a few coworkers from around work, not ones who are in the same team, but who are part of the broader work environment. Most of them were of the type where if we ran into each other in the hallway, we would stop, step off to the side for a few minutes and just chew the fat for a few minutes. Nothing deep, just catching up on each other’s lives. People who I don’t feel that I know well enough to follow on Facebook unless we were both accidentally on the same friend’s comments list. That would be a step too far, too regular of contact, too personal. True work-only friends. The ones who I will no longer see when I retire, unless I bump into them in a department store.
And I say this even though I’m an analytical introvert. I miss that social connection, however casual it might have been. I don’t necessarily need it at work, it could be through a community group, or a restaurant, or a coffee shop. Maybe an outing for breakfast with other retired people from work (a group I would like to join one day).
But I feel it. And felt it. I would regularly wander around the floor, just going for a walk to stretch my legs and get out of my cubicle. Experts would call it networking, but it wasn’t really intended that way. I would just wander. A DG or two that I knew, I would stop by and say hi. Maybe chat for 5m, just catch up. A director or four or five that I know, one in particular that I’m thinking of who I used to see once a month or so in his office at the end of a day. Just quickly catching up, nothing big. He retired last fall, and I don’t really have a connection to keep interacting with him. Facebook or a Zoom call would be “too personal”, too intrusive. We were drop-by friends, like chatting with a neighbour while walking to the mailbox. Okay, maybe a little more than that, but still, a somewhat contextual or transactional friendship.
And the article is right. We can’t replace those Tier 3 connections with simple digital options. We’ve boosted the FB connections, we have found some communities online, but generally speaking, we haven’t replaced those moments of personal connectivity that was part of our day. Sure, maybe you COULD phone them, but it would be weird to do so, for both of you. It’s why many people lament the loss of church — that WAS their community of Tier 2 and 3 connections, separate from the spiritual component.
I also think sometimes it is the biggest threat to people following isolation protocols and rules. When Tier 1 and 2 are insufficient, people crave Tier 3. Or without Tier 3, they need more Tier 1 and 2 to compensate, and suddenly you have large family get-togethers. Not because they’re disrespecting the rules, but because they feel the need and it helps them rationalize their choices.
Either way, I like the way the article explains it and how it made me think about more things today.