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How important are our micro-friendships?



Laura Doyle examines the idea of a micro-friendship, following the brutal breakdown of one of hers…

‘We are not a species of solitary beings. We need each other and cannot live in isolation – not only for the basic needs of survival, but for the fulfilment of our highest capacities such as thought and language’. 

According to Aristotle, our social nature finds its highest expression through friendship.

Aristotle may not have regarded women as men’s equals, but he did have some very interesting thoughts on friendship and human connection. 

A couple of years back I moved to a new area. It was on the very cusp of covid, the world and my new abode desolate, pulling me all sorts of ways out of my comfort zone. 

After some time it became evident I needed to find a new hairdresser, driving one hour to my previous just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Hair is a strange one for some – for me, rather. It is almost part of my identify, shielding me from the world when needed. So putting that into someone else’s hands can leave you feeling vulnerable. I like to choose my hairdressers carefully. 

I found one and we clicked immediately. You know when you meet someone and you instantly gel and feel at ease in their presence? Well that was how it was. We spoke in great depth about our loves and our lives, and I entrusted him with things about my life as he did with me.

Getting my hair done was now an added catch up with a friend, or so it seemed to be. I would pick up two coffees and a treat, and we would natter and laugh the way through the often lengthy hair tape application process.

About two years in to our hair-related micro-friendship, I tried to book in with him.

“I’m sorry he has no available appointments,” was what I got back.

Not a big deal I thought, I’m flexible, I’ll fit in whenever.

“I’m sorry he has no available appointments for you at all”. 

“Okay no problem at all!” I had to cheerily reply, “totally understand!”. Cool, calm, collected. Inside? Freaking out.

Did I come on too strong? Is he unfriending me? If I was Beyoncé would he squeeze me in? 

To him I am a client. One of many he sees every day, I get this. I do. So, why was I feeling so upset? 

With self-vilification imminent, I really tried to look inside and see what it was about this micro-friendship that has left me feeling so hurt.

As I delved more into the topic I soon realised that for some, these small interactions or ‘micro-friendships’ mean little to nothing, but for some they mean a great deal. 

In a study carried out by Professor David Myers of Hope College, Michigan, it was found that the people of Malawi are very familiar with these kinds of micro-friendships. It is the norm to exchange pleasantries with passers-by on the street, and with the vegetable and fruit-sellers. “If they have their babies with them you greet them, too. Eventually you see that the baby is now in school and there is another one on the way, so you feel you have gotten to know them through a series of small exchanges over the years,” says Professor Myers.

As I reached further into understanding the effect micro-friendships have on us as people I spoke with Joanna Fortune, clinical psychotherapist and attachment specialist, specialising in child and adolescent psychotherapy. Joanna is gifted in her field and explains the subject effortlessly. 

“As humans we are social beings, we need and thrive on connection with others,” she says. “Our connections with others will vary greatly depending on the context of the connection. We have our lifelong connections (family), our long term connections (lifelong friends) our intimate partner connections AND we have our weak-tie connections (micro-friendships). They all matter, they are all very important to us and hold value in our lives but they are all very different,” Joanna continues.

Micro-friendships are by nature casual connections. This does not mean they are unimportant. During Covid, when our contact with many of our loved ones were interrupted, the micro-friendship of eye contact, a shared smile, a wave and a good morning with the person we always met on those 5km walks really mattered. For some of us they were the only in-person interaction we may have had.

Micro-friendships blossom in places that are ‘ours’. The barista who knows your coffee order and the pleasant exchange you share each day, your gym buddy who’s surname you don’t know but who you enjoy working out with, the person who prepares your lunch in your office canteen who always remembers to ask about your kids.

These micro-friendships help to remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, we are part of a community of connections. In these casual but meaningful connections we feel seen and acknowledged. They feel pleasant and comfortable but without any demand upon us that we give more of ourselves.