Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Untraceable near-neighbours I’ve been wondering what happened to Margaret. I used to see her in her powered wheelchair with the wee dog trotting along. A few words, then on. And John, I’d see him on the corner down by the bank. And that woman with the funny walk, who would sit outside the pub with a beer in hand, on a summer’s eve. Sometimes she’d say hello, sometimes nowt. These are people I came to recognise in my neighbourhood. They are not weak ties; they’re not ties at all. We have or had no particular responsibility towards each other beyond that of common humanity. But the acknowledgement in passing encounters, the occasional greeting - these always contribute to the sense of neighbourhood, of context and belonging. And these in turn contribute to the accretion of potential support that in theory could be called on in time of need. Except I don’t know enough about them. This is a category of people who I would not say I ‘know’ (as in survey questions like ‘how many of your neighbours would you say you know?’) And since I don’t know where they live or lived, unless perhaps vaguely, then in most cases of need I couldn’t have ‘called on them’ in any sense. They are acquaintances not neighbours: they occupy the space on the continuum between intimates and strangers. Of course, I can easily think of relationships that have graduated from this kind to friendship. But there are many passing acquaintances that remain just that. When they stop appearing in the neighbourhood, it may take a while to miss them, until something makes you think… I wonder what happened to her? For some people, faith groups or clubs or third places can help to make such relations recoverable. But in most cases you’re not in a position to find out: they’re untraceable. Previously : Acquaintances: book review
‘Superficial’ relationships: near-strangers, weak ties, and older men 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...

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