by Dr Nikki Dunne
We all need companionship, care, nurturing, to be understood and feel we are a valued part of our small corner of the world. When these needs are not met, people can feel lonely or isolated, craving social interaction with friends and family. Loneliness can also be understood as the effect of being deprived of a world and public space where we share the highs and lows of collective life (Enns, 2022). That shared world can be achieved in many ways, with social connection and community fundamental to addressing loneliness and isolation.
Strong ties, typically characterised by close relationships, undoubtedly contribute to a sense of belonging. What is less talked about is the ‘strength of weak ties’, the connections often established in casual encounters. These are vital threads in the intricate fabric of society, helping people feel integrated in their communities and connected to others.
I leave my house one morning and exchange a few words with my neighbour before continuing the walk to school with my daughter. There I have a brief chat with other parents before walking home. I stop off at a coffee shop, exchange some light-hearted chat with the barista and other customers. These are not strangers; my neighbour knows who I am and who I live with, knows when I’m on holidays and entertaining friends; I have similar knowledge of her social circles. The barista knows what coffee I usually order. These everyday encounters, although brief, hold potential to foster a sense of familiarity and shared identity. In a diverse and changing society, these interactions provide opportunities for people from various backgrounds to momentarily connect, engage in small talk, share stories, and build empathy—an essential foundation for community cohesion.
‘Brief encounters’ illustrate the importance of ‘third places’ (Oldenburg, 1989). These informal gathering spaces, neither home nor work, play a vital role in community building. They include coffee shops, pubs, supermarkets, sports clubs and beaches. Through casual conversations in these places, community members can exchange news, advice, and opinions. While these connections may not reach the depths of strong friendships, the consistent interactions that these encounters facilitate can have a powerful impact on individuals' lives. The simple act of recognising and acknowledging a familiar face during a beach stroll can create a sense of comfort and familiarity, enhancing one's connection to the surrounding community. These subtle connections may influence individuals to engage in broader acts of kindness and social cooperation, ultimately contributing to the collective wellbeing of the community.
The Threading Place project sheds light on these invisible threads that are woven between one person and another, highlighting how we experience society in every interaction:
On every day, at every hour, such threads are spun, are allowed to fall, are taken up again, replaced by others, intertwined with others. Here lie the interactions… (Simmel, 1997)