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In hard times, what's-his-name could be your best friend

Research indicates that it's the casual acquaintance or mutual friend who often opens the door to new opportunities.

March 09, 2009|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ

You've got to look out for No. 1. It's a dog-eat-dog world. Everybody's in it for themselves.

These are some of the more charming axioms of American-style capitalism, and during hard financial times, you'd expect that they'd ring truer than ever.

Think of high unemployment and economic scarcity, and up come images of savage competition, broken marriages, corroded race relations and the scapegoating of immigrants. And if things get worse, we're probably going to see all of this and more.

If that weren't bad enough, a slew of studies have found that people who lose their jobs often retreat from friends and acquaintances. Whether it's because they're embarrassed or depressed, they're also less likely to participate in social activities.

Lowered civic engagement. Heightened social tensions. Does all this mean that the recession is tearing society apart at the seams?

Not necessarily.

Social (and professional) networking websites like LinkedIn and, to a lesser extent, Facebook, are booming, and their success points to another important social dynamic that occurs in hard times: Reaching out, one way or another, beyond your nearest and dearest is a matter of survival.

As the number of layoffs rose in January, unique visitors to LinkedIn shot up 22%, to 7.7 million, from 6.3 million in December. Last month, Facebook raised its new-user acquisitions rate from 450,000 a day to more than 480,000.

So what, you might say. Everyone knows these sites mostly promote shallow ties to people you barely know, even if you do call the process "friending." But that's exactly what makes the sites a balm in these hard times.

"Weak ties are your windows to the world," says Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter, who first wrote about this phenomenon in the early 1970s. "When you're looking for new ideas and new connections, you don't get them from family or close friends. It's the weak ties that connect you to different circles and opportunities."

After all, your close family and friends tend to occupy the same circles you do. It's the casual distant relationship -- perhaps the guy from college you bumped into the other day -- who is much more likely to open the door to a new direction.

In his classic 1973 study, "The Strength of Weak Ties," Granovetter wrote that of the people he surveyed who had found jobs through contacts, more than 80% reported that they saw the contact occasionally (55.6%) or rarely (27.8%). Chance meetings and mutual friends were often the reason the contact and the job-seeker found each other.

The message is pretty clear: People who have either lost a job or fear losing the one they have (which may encompass all of us) should start buttering up old acquaintances and get with the social-networking thing.

Recessions don't fundamentally change existing patterns of affection or disdain. In other words, bad times won't make you feel affection for anyone you didn't like before, or dislike someone you once adored. They could accentuate those likes and dislikes, though. A rocky marriage could become rockier. Intergroup tensions could rise. And, by the same token, emotional reliance on loved ones can deepen, and solidarity with the groups you identify with can grow.

In the end, however, it's that girl you sat next to in U.S. history in 11th grade, or that guy who played on your college intramural football team, who's in the best position to change your life. You know who I'm talking about. Their names are on the tip of your tongue. Get out your yearbook; start Googling.

Thank goodness for acquaintanceship.

--

grodriguez@latimes columnists.com

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