Weak Ties Theory: Why You Need Weak Social Ties

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Defining Decade" by Meg Jay. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the weak ties theory? Why do we need to pursue weak social ties in order to be happy and successful?

The weak ties theory is the idea that people with whom you have weak ties can help you find success. Weak ties often lead to good opportunities and stronger ties, so it’s important to pursue them.

Read more about the weak ties theory and what it means.

The Weak Ties Theory

According to the weak ties theory, you don’t exist in a vacuum, and a large piece of your identity, and your identity capital, is determined by the people in your life. Some of your personal ties are stronger than others. You have strong ties to those you spend a lot of time with or have known for many years. In childhood these include family and long-time friends. In your twenties these grow to embrace roommates, partners, and other close friends: your so-called “urban tribe.” 

You have weak ties to people you’ve met infrequently or who are connected to you through a mutual friend. These might be a colleague from a different department, a neighbor you rarely see, a former employer, or a friend-of-a-friend you keep meaning to get in touch with. 

Though you feel more comfortable around your strong ties, the people with whom you have weak ties are most likely to help you move forward in your pursuits. This is because your strong ties are like you: They think like you, have similar life experiences, or are from the same places. Therefore, they have little to add to your journey, either in work or love. They know the same things and the same people you know. Your strong ties can also prevent you from moving forward by lulling you into a sense of behavioral complacency. These people love you as you are and give you no incentive to conduct yourself in a more professional or presentable manner. 

However, your weak ties can give you access to information and people you don’t otherwise know. Interacting with your weak ties encourages you to behave more professionally: You must organize your thoughts more clearly and use more formal vocabulary than you would around someone with whom you are intimately comfortable. Consequently, you are encouraged to act more mindfully and reflectively. An extraordinary number of jobs are found through a network of weak ties, rather than an ad. 

How to Cultivate Your Weak Ties: Getting Started

People often feel uncomfortable asking for help from weak ties. They’d prefer to get a job on their own, or they don’t feel “networking” fits with who they are. But because new opportunities almost always come from outside your circle of close contacts, it’s important to reach out. According to the weak ties theory, ignoring the potential of weak ties can only shut you off from opportunities.  

Fortunately, you have human nature on your side: People naturally like to help other people. Humans have an innate tendency towards altruism. Studies show that acting altruistically leads to health, happiness, and longevity. In short, it feels nice to act nice. 

Additionally, when someone does you a favor, she’s far more likely to do you another in the future. This is because of another quirk of human nature: Behavior shapes attitudes. When someone helps you, her brain tells her she likes you and she’s inclined to help you again. 

A great way to approach a weak tie is to ask her for a small, interesting, specific, and easy-to-accomplish favor. Ben Franklin outlined this idea in his autobiography. He wanted to foster a connection with a certain politician. Instead of trying to win him over by acting servile or overly complimentary, he asked him if he could borrow a specific book he’d discovered the politician owned. The politician sent it over, and after that, took Franklin under his wing and helped his career for years afterwards.

The important elements of Franklin’s request were:

  • He researched his target.
  • He made himself relevant: He matched his request to his target’s area of expertise.
  • He made himself interesting: His request was unusual.
  • He asked for a specific, clearly-defined, and easy-to-execute favor. 
  • He came across as a serious, professional person.

When approaching your weak tie, whether it be for a letter of recommendation, introduction, or informational interview, follow Franklin’s structure:

  • Research your target: Find out any relevant information that might connect you.
  • Make yourself relevant: Find a connection to your target’s expertise.
  • Make yourself interesting: Show some personality. 
  • Make your request specific: Don’t approach someone with a vague, “Can we meet for coffee?” Instead, let her know what exactly you’d like to discuss. 
  • Make your request easy to execute: Don’t ask for advice that would require lengthy, thoughtful responses on a broad subject like what you should do with your life. Ask instead for advice on a specific aspect of one particular industry you’re interested in. 

Using the weak ties theory is a great way to expand the set of potential options available to you. As we’ll explore in the next section, you can’t make choices if you don’t have options.  

Weak Ties Theory: Why You Need Weak Social Ties

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  • Why the twenties are your most important decade
  • How you were fooled into thinking it was an extended period of youth and freedom
  • Why you should use this decade to find personal and professional success

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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