Casual connections might be some of the most consequential relations in our lives, helping us land jobs and deal with our personal issues, and providing us with a sense of identity and belonging. And in our world of social media, such as Facebook, modern humans probably have more casual acquaintances than most humans have ever had before.
An “acquaintance” is a personal relationship that falls between a stranger and an intimate. They lie outside one’s inner circle of close friends and family, but are not totally unknown as a stranger might be.
Acquaintances might include people we routinely encounter in our everyday lives — people we see daily at the coffee shop, people we take a class with at our local community college, and even people with whom we share intimate details of our personal lives at a self-help group meeting, such as Alcoholic Anonymous. They might be the people who care for our children every day, the people we know from social movement activism or the elderly neighbors who live down the street.
Acquaintances are characterized by having particular forms of knowledge of one another. We might simply know another person’s first name and that they sell pomegranates and oranges at the farmers market.
The difference between acquaintances and intimates has to do with, for example, the length of time of the relationship, the amount of intimacy, its emotional intensity and the level of reciprocity. Obviously, there is a fluidity in our relationships, with people moving in and out of our inner circles.
In one of the most widely cited articles in social science research, Mark Granovetter (1973) explores “the strength of weak ties.” Acquaintances can play crucial roles in our lives. Specifically, he demonstrated that employment opportunities were more likely to derive from less intimate community ties than from close family and intimate friends.
Subsequent research on social networks demonstrates that resources, information and new connections — which generate “social capital” — are the outcome of weak ties in all spheres of social life, not just employment.
Because we have weak ties with our acquaintances, they tend to be much more diverse than our intimates. By contrast, close friends are often limited to people very similar to ourselves in essential ways.
Acquaintances are responsible for the flow of much new information to us because they know people we do not. They connect us with a broader set of social networks than do our close friends and families, who often know the same people as we do. In our increasingly urban lives, acquaintances play important roles such as anchoring individuals to the larger community.
Walking through my neighborhood, greeting joggers, chatting with people walking their dogs and waving to people sitting on their porches, I feel at home and connected to my community.
Higher status people typically have a wider variety of acquaintances. Having varied connections improves one’s chances of having useful contacts, including knowing people who might be hiring or who might help us in other innumerable other ways.
One of the central ways in which we “do” acquaintanceship has to do with the norms of etiquette in public places. When their eyes meet on a busy street or in a crowded department store, acquaintances are able to show that they recognize each other. By contrast, strangers typically avoid extended eye contact and refrain from engaging in conversation, a ritual sociologist Erving Goffman refers to as “civil inattention.”
Depending on the social context and the quality of the relationship, norms of civility might require that acquaintances briefly exchange greetings and pleasantries.
When we say “it takes a village,” we are acknowledging the role that acquaintances might play in very important aspects of our everyday lives, such as teaching our children, watching over the safety of our homes or attending a religious service with us.
Indeed, the very moral character of a community and the health of its democratic polity are often reflected through the liveliness of these subtle and ephemeral encounters in public.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).