Psychologist says casual acquaintances are pillars of our emotional health, even if we don’t know their names.
A year of COVID-19 has affected American life in so many ways – including one painful loss we might not consciously register: Our casual friendships and everyday interactions.
Those are our “how ya doing” friendships – people we chat with at work, the gym, in cafés, stores or bars. Plus, we’ve lost the simple hellos and smiles to clerks, building co-inhabitants, people passing on the street and more. They add depth to our lives and a layer of shared humanity that psychologists say is essential to our emotional health.
“Those are important pieces of our emotional lives that we’re missing,” said Kaye Hermanson, UC Davis Health clinical psychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “It’s like our emotional picture is still in color but there are some hues completely washed out.”
These are also the relationships many people haven’t looked after during the COVID-19 pandemic, partly because they aren’t at the Zoom level of familiarity and partly because we can’t. We know many of these people by first name only, if at all.
But if they live near the edges of our lives, that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Research suggests they bolster our emotional health in many ways.
Those casual friendships fill in our days and our sense of belonging. They add an underlying warmth and comfort to our world. They bring up memories, build our sense of community, make us feel we’re part of something larger.
We don’t know how much we miss people we barely know
— Kaye Hermanson
“We hear how people are feeling isolated during the pandemic,” Hermanson said. “Many people talk about missing their families or best friends. They may not realize how much they miss their casual friends, too, and how much that hole in their lives adds to a sense of isolation.”
One example of a diminished connection is the everyday work meeting. Sitting in an actual room together, colleagues tend to toss out smiles, casual jokes and affirmations – even with serious business to do. It’s much harder to connect in a video conference – because people tend to stick to business and because the medium distorts our connections.
“There are micro expressions that people make,” Hermanson said. “They take fractions of a second. Our brains are really amazing at picking up on those. We can tell if someone is pleased or uncomfortable or a thousand other things. If I accidentally said something awkward, I can instantly correct it.”
Much of that gets missed on a video conference. We don’t see each other as clearly, obviously, and the sound and the video aren’t synced well-enough to catch much of the non-verbal communication.
“And it’s hard to make eye contact,” Hermanson said. “If you’re looking at camera on top of the computer, you’re not looking at them in the eye. We can’t do all the things we do naturally to make the other person like us or to put them at ease.”
On top of missing our casual friends and connections, we miss our everyday inconsequential interactions – letting someone go through a door first, picking up a dropped item, joking with a barista, even just smiling. Research shows smiling at someone can make us happy.
“Those bits of connection are light and make us feel good simply because they are inconsequential,” Hermanson said. “Now, we can’t even tell if someone is smiling under their mask.”
How to rekindle casual friendships
— Kaye Hermanson
- “The first thing is to be aware we’re missing them,” Hermanson said. “That will help explain some of the reasons why we feel isolated or bored. It’s normal and it will end. Keep telling yourself that we’re all doing the best we can right now.”
- Try texting casual friends you haven’t seen to say you’re thinking about them. “Who wouldn’t want to get that text?” she said. “It will make you both feel more connected.”
- Despite the shortcomings, try a video conference with a group of casual friends who know each other. “It still can provide some important emotional connections,” Hermanson said. “Just shooting the breeze adds real joy to our lives.”
- Keep smiling at people under that mask. “Some people will see your eyes and know,” she said. “I’m an extrovert. Getting people to smile gives me a boost. Sometimes I tell people, ‘I’m smiling at you,’ just to be sure they know. And they smile back, I think.”
If progress on vaccinations continues, and if people keep up their safety practices, especially masking and social distancing, we may be letting some of these people back into our lives in the coming months.
“Now we know how much we miss those casual friends,” Hermanson said. “We just need to stay safe a little longer and think about how happy we’ll be to see our family, best friends and all our casual friends. Knowing what they mean to us might make us all better friends when this is over.”