A Welcome Reminder: The Strength of Weak Ties

Adventuring to Chennai to meet family friends from NJ, Gus and Neela Pushparaj.

Adventuring to Chennai to meet family friends from NJ, Gus and Neela Pushparaj.

“Oh, my friend’s roommate’s brother lives in India… I think.” I heard some variation of lines like these from a handful of friends or coworkers upon telling them about my decision to move to Bangalore, India for a six-month fellowship. Most of these comments were made off-handedly, in an attempt to find common ground concerning my choice to move across the world. However, a few friends followed up with names and email addresses of people to look up once I arrived. And with little hesitation, I reached out to each of them. What did I have to lose—I didn’t know a soul on the Indian Subcontinent.

Having begun my professional career in Washington, D.C., I was hardly unfamiliar with networking. And yet, between my circles—personal, professional, familial—I often felt content with the many people in my life; I barely had time to see everyone I knew, let alone dedicate time to meeting new people.

Yet, in India, I was starting from scratch, with almost no choice but to pursue every contact thrown my way. So I began reaching out to my list of “people in India”: the friend of a friend of the woman from my mom’s book club; the couple from India whose daughters went to my high school; the professor from Georgetown who was visiting at the university in New Delhi.

Each connection was more tangential than the last. And yet, as these random connections often go, each brought me on a new adventure: attending a medical school reunion in Chennai for the class of 1957, meeting a marathoner in Bangalore who had studied to become a music producer before working at Nike, dancing to a Goan cover band at the local Gymkhana to celebrate Carnival with the CFO of my organization’s sister company. And in the strong tradition of Indian hospitality, each of these connections spun off into one or two more names to look up, growing my web of “people in India” to a loose but strong network of friends and acquaintances.  

It may have taken moving 7,300 miles away, but in coming to India I was pleasantly reminded by the power of friends of friends, or what American sociologist and Stanford Professor, Mark Granovetter, famously coined “weak ties.” Weak ties are essentially people that we are connected to in some manner, but do not know well.

In his renowned paper on social networks, “The Strength of Weak Ties” Granovetter argues that people tend to get the most opportunities from people with whom they are the least connected to, as opposed to family and friends. Unlike people in our inner circle, weak ties tend to have entirely different networks than us, and by connecting with them one can maximize their exposure to different people and opportunities.

While I was not pursuing my weak ties in an effort to network or find a job during my time in Bangalore, rather simply to broaden my horizons and to meet people who would help me to immerse myself India in a genuine way, I was struck by how much Granovetter’s argument resonated with my experiences. Each connection had led to an opportunity, and in many cases an adventure that I would have certainly not experienced on my own. As clinical psychologist, Dr. Meg Jay wrote in her book The Defining Decade, “weak ties are like bridges you cannot see all the way across, so there is no telling where they might lead.”

I was testing Granovetter’s hypothesis in an entirely different context than his original experiment in the 1970s, but it was the perfect reminder—India and beyond—to embrace even the most tangential connection, as there’s no telling where it might lead.