"Weak Ties" & Why Everything Your Parents Taught You About Talking to Strangers is Wrong

Everything your parents taught you about talking to strangers is wrong--at least after the age of 18. Talking to strangers isn’t just “okay” when it comes to your professional development, it’s essential. 

“It’s a bit counter-intuitive,” Jason Morgan explained in Forbes, “but in the workplace it is not the strong ties that can be the most beneficial. In fact, weak ties (acquaintances or people that you might not know that well) can be far more valuable.” That has certainly been my lived experience and here are three reasons you should embrace new opportunities to build new connections:

  1. You might get a job: a few years ago I was on a “staycation” when I went to a midday exercise class. As I got settled in, I noticed there was only one other woman in the room. Instead of retreating into our phones before class began we started chatting. Turned out Emily and I were in the same field, she had just relocated to Washington to support her partner who had accepted an incredible new job opportunity, and she was looking for a new job herself. “Great news,” I told her, “we have a job open at my company and I think you’d be a great fit, but my friend is also hiring at her company so let me connect you two for coffee.” Two weeks later, she had an offer in-hand from my friend for a job she would work at for two years. I did not get her that job but our chance encounter had immediately connected her to the opportunity to meet the hiring manager, rock the interview, and quickly land the job at one of DC’s most respected companies, Atlantic Media.

  2. You might find a mentor: early in my career, I was ready to make a change from my job and had zeroed in on a list of companies I was interested in. One of those was NPR. I first looked to see if anybody in my network could  introduce me to a friend or acquaintance. With no “weak tie” connections, I set out to build my own and sent a cold email to a fundraising executive I had looked up online named Chris Howie. “Hi Chris,” I wrote using LinkedIn’s in-mail function, “My name is Randi Braun and I’m a fundraiser working at [my old organization]. I’d love to learn more about your fundraising work at NPR: would you be open to grabbing a coffee or speaking on the phone sometime? Thanks for your time and I hope to connect soon.” Chris responded, invited me to NPR for a coffee and even toured me around the newsroom. NPR didn’t have any openings but we had a great conversation and kept in touch. Years later, while we’ve haven’t worked together (yet), he remains a friend and a trusted mentor. 

  3. You might even get a true “once in a lifetime” opportunity: I acknowledge this is probably the least likely scenario but I’ve made the mistake of being closed to a new connection and, trust me, I’ll never make it again. I was 18 years old when I joined my parents on a family vacation, flying in from Atlanta where I was attending college. My parents’ flight from New York had been delayed by a snowstorm and, before the ubiquity of iPhones and tracking apps, I had to check on their flight status the old-fashioned way: by checking with the front desk at the hotel. When an older gentleman sitting in the lobby in a motorized wheelchair noticed me going back and forth to the desk a few times, he approached me to ask if I was alright. After explaining the situation, he told me that he and his wife were about to sit down for a bite in the hotel’s lobby lounge: did I want to join them for dinner so I didn’t have to eat alone while I waited for my family? I politely declined only to learn the next morning I had declined an invitation to eat dinner with world-famous, violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman and his wife. 

I probably won’t ever meet Itzkak Perlman again, but chance encounters continue to play an outsize role in some of the most important personal and professional relationships I’ve developed over the last decade. My experiences confirm four decades of social science research on why networking is so important and demonstrate why “weak tie theory” is so powerful in shaping our work world. 

It’s counterintuitive, but weak ties can be even more influential than strong ones. Chris and Emily perfectly demonstrate why new connections can effective “bridges” to the information and access we need. As Morgan concluded in Forbes, “weak ties are one of the keys to the future of work in organizations today.” 

To be clear, I don’t suggest pitching yourself to every stranger you meet at the coffee shop or on your morning commute. Nor do I suggest abandoning close friends (those “strong ties”) in favor of transactional relationships with new acquaintances. What I do suggest, however, is being open to all the organic connections waiting to be made around you in places where you already share some connection, are looking to build one, or have a moment to put down your cell phone and just say “hi” to the person sitting next to you.

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Randi Braun is the Founder of Something Major. A business development executive by day and career coach, consultant, and speaker by night, Randi lives in Washington, DC. To learn more visit www.somethingmajorcoaching.com. (c) Randi Braun 2019.