Back in 2009, in government guidance on meaningful social interaction, we were told that
‘for interaction to be meaningful it needs to go beyond a superficial level and be sustained.’
I was never satisfied with this and have occasionally wondered if there was a missed opportunity to champion non-meaningful interaction. I have long argued that superficial interaction is the essential ingredient in neighbouring.
It could be time to return to this theme. I’ve been exploring some of the social benefits of Good Neighbour schemes, and this has encouraged me to dust-off another, related theme – gender differences in the sense of aloneness among older people. In one scheme for which I happen to have figures to hand, 79 per cent of clients live alone.
Here’s how the two themes seem to come together, incorporating recent research I have come across. First, two papers by Sandstrom and Dunn published in 2014:
- Is efficiency overrated? Minimal social interactions lead to belonging and positive affect
- Social interactions and well-being: the surprising power of weak ties
In the first, they found that ‘people who had a social interaction with a barista (i.e. smiled, made eye contact, and had a brief conversation) experienced more positive affect than people who were as efficient as possible.’ The authors conclude that people ‘are happier when they treat a stranger like a weak tie.’ No surprise there, but as so often it is helpful to have some things confirmed by robust research.
As an aside, it may be worth noting that the sincerity of the exchange could be important. When a supermarket checkout assistant asks me ‘How are you today?’ the most they are likely to get in return is a grunt, because I know they won’t really want to know but their wretchedly-unimaginative managers have decided it’s a good idea to fill the air with unwanted vapours. There is a difference.
In the second paper, Sandstrom and Dunn report on three further experiments and note that
‘community members who had, on average, more weak tie interactions than others reported greater feelings of belonging. Furthermore, people reported greater feelings of belonging on days when they interacted with more weak ties than usual.’
The sampling in this study leaves me wanting further research, but still it’s tempting to say – ‘it’s official’: weak ties are good for you. Of course they are.
Next, here’s a recent paper by Sorensen and Poland, exploring ‘the space between acquaintanceship and strangerhood’. It starts by quoting Francesca Cancian who suggested that, in relationship research in later life, ‘men’s behavior is measured with a feminine ruler’. A little light went on, for me, when I read that.
Sorensen and Poland’s research used photographs to explore nuances of everyday encounters of older men living alone. The men attributed significance to what might seem to others like fleeting interactions; and all were exposed to various opportunities to form other closer relationships and friendships but ‘they sometimes described specifically choosing not to do so.’
The authors suggest that it is not the case that the men had no meaningful relationships,
‘nor can their relationships be considered inferior compared with women’s relationships, but they are clearly different, in terms of mutuality and intimacy, from the reportedly more meaningful relationships that women may enjoy and may be much less visible.’
Which brings us back to the meaning of 'meaningful' interactions.
All this makes perfect sense to me. Interactions that are apparently shallow and ephemeral, to some observers, not only have benefits in terms of social capital (and hence in terms of health and well-being); they may also be a chosen, deliberate strategy to retain human connection with what Sandstrom and Dunn call a ‘minimal cue of belonging’.
Perhaps this kind of behaviour is sufficiently strongly evidenced to characterise older men who live alone in particular, I don’t know. But either way, it is something that practitioners need to take into account, for example when it comes to designing ‘age-friendly’ environments, or when trying to organise social support at local level.
Notably, for me, it helps us to start challenging the way that as a society we have come to pathologise aloneness. Which reminds me, in my book on Neighbouring and older people I quoted the striking example from Tony Parker's The people of Providence, of 87-year-old Mrs Williams:
‘The person I like best is my neighbour next door, the one who goes and gets my pension from the post office for me. She never says anything apart from “Good morning…” She comes back and comes in and puts the money on the table and says “Good morning” again, and then out she goes.’
- on meaningful interaction (on the Joe Public blog)
- Try a little MSI
- Untraceable near-neighbours
- Acquaintances: book review