Why Everyone Needs Casual Friends in Their Lives

Those casual friendships that we form at playgrounds and parks, coffee shops and corner stores, were taken away by the pandemic. They're crucial to get back.

The pandemic decimated all parts of life. It hit employment, bank accounts, mental health, and other categories that aren’t hard to list. But one of the more subtle losses has been friendships. Not the old ones, as many people leaned on or reconnected with their friends during the stay-at-home days, but the more casual friends and acquaintances. These relationships were lost amidst shutdowns and social distancing — and we’re all the worse for it.

It made sense that we had to miss these casual friends. Either by mandate or choice, we didn’t go out unless it was necessary. It kept us safe, but in the process, it made our world small by cutting out the people we would have run into on a regular basis if any semblance of regular still remained.

Now, as the world opens up, we’re all reassessing our lives and asking “Do I really need to go back to the gym?” “Is the coffee shop a must?” The answer could be no and our day would be fine. But we’d lose out on those friends we’d meet there, the people we recognize and talk to but don’t know that well. The relationships Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter referred to as “weak ties.”

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a huge loss. Casual friends or acquaintances are not the folks we go to or make plans with. We run into them or see them at places we frequent. But they still matter a great deal. They’re part of our lives. They add something; when we know — and regularly see — the guy behind the counter or dad at the playground, our world becomes less impersonal. That’s a powerful thing and it makes us feel better.

But it’s not just about us and how we feel. Casual friends and acquaintances come with different ideas, backgrounds, and struggles. Even if you only converse with them through small talk, that comes through.

“It expands our bandwidth. It keeps us aware of others,” says Geoffrey Greif, professor at University of Maryland School of Social Work and author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.

There’s also the possibility that these people could become more to us, because all great true friendships begin as casual friends. But even if it never goes past the “Hey, how’s it going? (Still don’t know your name.),” stage, there’s still at a lot of importance.

Why? Not everyone needs to be in your inner circle, but having more people you “know” makes everything easier, because eventually you’ll need a ladder, a ride, an extra set of hands. “Cooperation is mutually beneficial,” says Daniel M.T. Fessler, professor of anthropology and director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute. “It’s an insurance policy, but it’s also about barn raising.”

In other words: People are there for you. You’re there for others. You benefit. Your kids do. Your neighbor does, along with their kids and all their friends, and so on and so on. It ripples outward. But these relationships don’t just happen. You need to do something to create that community.

Developing Casual Friends

Parenting can seem like an endless grind of drop-off, pick up, play date, soccer game, repeat. Your life can feel limited – and, well, it kind of is – but that’s also the advantage. You go to the same places and see the same people on the same schedule, the essential ingredients for casual friendships, Fessler says.

That’s upside number one. The next is that these relationships require no investment or responsibility. There are no plans to make so there are never broken plans. They just happen, and when you run into someone, conversations stay light. “It’s a relief,” says Grief, as what you’re discussing in these circumstances is often a nice distraction from what you’re normally dealing with.

But as no-maintenance as they are, casual acquaintances don’t happen without some reaching out. The problem is that it can become like the dance floor where everyone is waiting for someone else to go first. The other problem is it’s easy to get caught up in appearances. That guy doesn’t look friendly or you saw him last week and he definitely didn’t act friendly. Your conclusion? The guy is never friendly so there’s no need to bother.

Fessler, however, has been able to infer from his work that casual acquaintances are far from fixed. “There are few true sinners and saints,” as he says. Someone can be gruff in one setting, generous in another, and it can depend on the people around them. If you’re in the bleachers and being positive, others will feel a need to keep up. If everyone is being quiet, you might follow suit. “They’re influencing you and you’re influencing them,” he says.

Whatever the behavior, a message gets sent out about what’s done in this micro-world. People pick it up, and the momentum can build. It’s not ripples in a pond. Those weaken as they expand. Whatever you’re helping to create “doesn’t diminish with distance,” Fessler says. “It ramifies out.”

A Gift For Yourself — And Your Kids

It doesn’t take much to begin such a dynamic. Essentially, it’s being friendly with a “Hello” or a smile. But if it’s so simple and has so much upside in making a more supportive community, why isn’t it done more? Fessler says that when people live in cities, which, by definition, are big and impersonal, they learn to be cautious and wary. That defense isn’t permanent but it doesn’t dissolve merely because you have kids and move to a neighborhood.

It takes some chipping away. It’s back to saying, “Hi”, offering an open seat, or just asking the fellow parent, “How old is yours?” The conversation might go nowhere, but commit to it, and eventually one will and you’ll make a connection to a person. “It makes their experience of the world better and your experience of the world better,” Fessler says. “That park becomes a kinder place.”

As with most everything parenting-related, making casual acquaintances is also about modeling. When you’re sitting in the stands, buying groceries, or walking the dog, you could remain uninterested and detached and your kids will see that. You could also decide to be the guy who is going to engage and recognize people. Do that and your kids will get a different message. “The world is not a scary place,” Greif says. “By your attitude or approach, you’re taking control of the environment.”