How many times have you stopped to say “Hi” or “How are you?” to someone when you’ve been out and about? How often do you initiate a short chat with someone new? Or are these short social exchanges something that you avoid altogether? Did you know that these minimal interactions can lead you to live a longer, happier and healthier life, so we think they should be more actively encouraged (Brody, 2017).
Prior to the pandemic a person would engage with 11-16 people on average everyday, but over the last 20 months our social interactions have become extremely regulated due to lockdowns and social distancing (Sandstrom, Levy, 2021), meaning a decline in the number of our social interactions and often our confidence to socialise. The pockets of neighbourliness and community connection observed during the early Covid lockdowns have begun to dissipate. Even prior to the pandemic the way we interacted was changing; social media usage has risen exponentially often to the detriment of social connection, as ‘excessive usage’ of social media is highly correlated with increased levels of loneliness (particularly for young people) (Bonsaksen, et al., 2021). The world around us is also becoming more efficient/ more automated, (e.g. fully automated grocery stores, AI, or a continued preference for shopping online) meaning human interaction is on the decline (Sandstrom, Levy, 2011).
As we emerge from the pandemic, there is an appetite for social connection which creates an exciting opportunity for people to come together and connect in new ways, not just with those we consider our friends and family but those in our wider community also. Research suggests that daily ‘mico-interactions’ (e.g. “hi”, “how are you”, “thank you”) with our everyday casual acquaintances, like your bus driver, neighbour or barista, result in better subjective well being, reduced loneliness and greater sense of belonging to their community (Gunayadin et al., 2020). It is also suggested that these kinds of interactions help to give us a sense of connection to the world around us and provide opportunities for experiences and learning that is beyond that of our personal social circles (Blau, Fingerman, 2009). Nevertheless, many of us tend to shy away from these exchanges, Kasriel calls this an ‘anti-social paradox’ in which we underestimate the value of interactions with strangers and acquaintances, as we tend to value our connections with friends and family a lot more (2020).
At Neighbourly Lab, we see amazing potential in micro-interactions and we are exploring ways that we might promote these in our communities. In looking at the experimental literature on micro-interactions we observed two interesting approaches for promoting micro-interactions:
Promoting conversation with those around you. An interesting example of this is Professor Nick Epley’s and Juliana Schroeder’s 2014 experiment on Chicago’s public transport, where strangers were asked to talk to one another on their commutes. In doing so they found that passengers were happier and had a more enjoyable commute than those who did not engage with others, though passengers did not expect this outcome, demonstrating how they undervalue the effects of these interactions.
Encouraging kindness amongst strangers. One such study was conducted by U-Lab Kinder Scotland, where they invited people to undertake an act of kindness for 21 days in January 2017. They found that being kind made people feel happier, they valued kindness more, and were more empowered to be kinder in their life.
The experimental literature demonstrates the powers of micro-interactions and as we seek to promote them in our communities, we are looking to those people who are most embedded and have the greatest reach in our communities - our Essential Workers. Data suggests that there are roughly 250 million daily touch points between essential workers and the public, meaning the opportunities for social connection are vast.
This realisation has led to the creation of one of our most exciting projects to date - the Essential Mix. This project, kindly funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, seeks to promote positive micro interactions between essential workers and residents by making small tweaks to the current context via experimental interventions. We plan to conduct experiments to explore what works to help promote these interactions.
We're currently seeking partners to conduct experimental trials with and would love to hear from you if you would be interested in partnering with us on this work.
To learn more, visit our project website here: https://www.theessentialmix.online/