You wrote SOCIAL CHEMSITRY prior to COVID-19 and its global impact. As a leading researcher on social connections, what are some of the major changes you’ve been seeing over the past few months?
Our social networks have contracted by close to 17% during COVID. Under normal circumstances, our networks don’t simply shrink, they are more likely to churn. Rather than slowly losing friends over time, as we move, change jobs, or have kids, we usually forge new relationships to replace the ones we have lost.
What is unusual about COVID is that old relationships aren’t being replaced by new ones. Instead, it’s our closest relationships, our inner circle, that is the focus of our attention. This is a helpful adaptation since it helps protect against loneliness. But it can make finding a job harder. It can hinder career progress and create groupthink.
How do you see the takeaways from SOCIAL CHEMISTRY applying to this particular moment and beyond?
Now, more than ever, we need social connection. Loneliness has increased, collaborating with colleagues is harder than ever, and society is more divided. SOCIAL CHEMISTRY offers people a chance to reflect on their relationships. With our social environment rapidly changing, understanding how to connect with others and navigate our changing social world is essential for your own well-being and helping others you care about.
What are some of the simple things we can all be doing to foster our relationships and feel connected?
One of the most important things is just to listen. We spend almost a quarter of our time listening, but it is rare for someone to truly be heard. Clinical trials have shown that listening reduces patients’ pain, improves leadership ability, marriage, and makes it easier to deal with adolescents and crying children.
What surprised you most as you were writing SOCIAL CHEMISTRY?
How incredibly fragile and ever changing our relationships are. Take a moment and think about the colleagues with whom you had “frequent and substantial” business a year ago. How many of them do you think are still central in your world life? Half? A third? Typically, only one out of four colleagues remain in this exalted position for a full year. Social relations tend to evolve more slowly than relationships at work, but half our social relationships beyond family will cease to exist in roughly two years.
Many people have faced unemployment this year, what advice can you offer to those seeking to expand their network?
More than half of jobs are found through personal connections. Our acquaintances are usually more helpful than our closest friends and family when looking for a new job because they are more likely to have novel information and be outside our echo chamber.
But that isn’t true for people who are unemployed. Strangers and acquaintances are not as willing to advocate for people who are out of work according to research by Brittany Bond and Roberto Fernandez at MIT. For people who are out of work and looking for work, the best approach is to reach out to untapped parts of their existing networks. During periods of unemployment, it is our closest connections who are more likely to help us get a job.
Many parents are now overseeing their children’s virtual learning while working from home themselves. How might understanding the household social chemistry alleviate their practical and emotional challenges?
Many of us are spending more time with our kids than ever before. But we aren’t necessarily feeling more connected. With screens on all the time, we are distracted. Our divided attention makes it difficult to notice what is going on around us, impairs our ability to read other people’s emotions, and ultimately makes us socially disconnected.
Simply having a phone on the table, not even using it, makes meals less enjoyable. When we are having important conversations, the consequences are more dire. Right now, it is critical to try to have moments when we are fully present with whomever we spend time. That is true whether it is with our kids or our colleagues.