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Watercooler conversations: Weak-ties matter

sue_frantz
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My college has been working remotely for the last 10 months, and we’re planning on working remotely for the next 10 months, although that may change as conditions warrant.

I participate in regular committee and department meetings via Zoom. My EdTech colleagues—one-third of my time is spent there—and I communicate with each other primarily through Slack. We have only two Slack channels: #actualwork and #rantandrave. That pretty much covers what we need to discuss. In late March 2020 as the handful of us in EdTech prepared to help our 500 or so faculty move to remote or asynchronous online teaching, Slack was a lifeline. For colleagues I’m closer to, we meet via Zoom one-on-one every so often.

As we plodded through January 2021 and the start of our winter quarter, I realized what I had been missing. I missed casual conversations. I missed people popping their heads into my office to ask if I had a minute to chat about… anything. Students. Teaching. Dogs. Cupcakes. Gossip. I missed chatting with people in the hallway. On campus sidewalks. In the parking lot. I missed my casual acquaintances.

To remedy this at my college, I started a “watercooler” movement. Anyone at any time can email all faculty and staff with “watercooler” and a (short!) time limit in the subject line. For example, if it’s 10:55am, I could send out a faculty/staff email with “Watercooler until 11:15am.” In the body of the message is a Zoom link. There is no agenda, and the time is short and finite. We’re just there for a few minutes to chat about whatever topics move us.

I’ve hosted a few watercoolers, and to date, three of my colleagues have hosted watercoolers. We’ve had anywhere from five to ten people attend—including the college president. I’ve met some new people, including people who started working at the college after we went remote. And I’ve seen many people that I only used to see in hallways, on sidewalks, in parking lots. After each watercooler session, my mood is much lighter. If I were a much deeper person, I’d say this time with acquaintances feeds my soul. But I’m not that deep.

In a recent watercooler session, one my colleagues said she not-long-ago read an article about the importance of weak social ties. She said the crux of the article was that that’s what so many of us are missing with our remote work: our weak ties.

And that is how I came to learn about sociologist Mark Granovetter’s paper on the importance of weak ties (Granovetter, 1973). One of my takeaways from the article is that historically, sociology focused on strong ties as the key to functioning networks. Granovetter proposed that weak ties are also important and worthy of research. Others evidently agreed. Google Scholar says that 58,631 articles to date have cited this 1973 paper.

Several news outlets at various times during this pandemic year have picked up on this story—that we’re missing connecting with our weak ties. Here’s a sampling. Each article provides its own suggestions for how to tend to our weak ties during the pandemic.

BBC (July 2, 2020): “Why your ‘weak-tie’ friendships may mean more than you think

The Harvard Gazette (August 27, 2020): “The value of talking to strangers — and nodding acquaintances

The New York Times (October 11, 2020): “How to connect with the co-workers you’re missing

In your coverage of social psych or stress and coping, ask your students to read one or more of the articles above. In a discussion, ask students if they feel like they’re maintaining their weak ties. If so, how? If not, how might they?

Your students aside, how can you foster your weak tie connections?

 

Reference

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360–1380.

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.