So the takeaway here is not just “take someone out to coffee.” It’s a little more subtle. It’s “go to the coffee room.” When researchers talk about social hubs, what makes a social hub so special is you can’t choose; you can’t predict who you’re going to meet in that place. And so with these social hubs, the paradox is, interestingly enough, to get randomness, it requires, actually, some planning. In one university that I worked at, there was a mail room on every single floor. What that meant is that the only people who would bump into each other are those who are actually on that floor and who are bumping into each other anyway. At another university I worked at, there was only one mail room, so all the faculty from all over that building would run into each other in that social hub. A simple change in planning, a huge difference in the traffic of people and the accidental bumps in the network.
Here’s my question for you: What are you doing that breaks you from your social habits? Where do you find yourself in places where you get injections of unpredictable diversity? And my students give me some wonderful examples. They tell me when they’re doing pickup basketball games, or my favorite example is when they go to a dog park. They tell me it’s even better than online dating when they’re there.
So the real thing that I want you to think about is we’ve got to fight our filters. We’ve got to make ourselves a little more inefficient, and by doing so, we are creating a more imprecise social search engine. And you’re creating that randomness, that luck that is going to cause you to widen your travels, through your social universe.
But in fact, there’s more to it than that. Sometimes we actually buy ourselves a second-class ticket to travel our social universe. We are not courageous when we reach out to people. Let me give you an example of that. A few years ago, I had a very eventful year. That year, I managed to lose a job, I managed to get a dream job overseas and accept it, I had a baby the next month, I got very sick, I was unable to take the dream job. And so in a few weeks, what ended up happening was, I lost my identity as a faculty member, and I got a very stressful new identity as a mother. What I also got was tons of advice from people. And the advice I despised more than any other advice was, “You’ve got to go network with everybody.” When your psychological world is breaking down, the hardest thing to do is to try and reach out and build up your social world.
And so we studied exactly this idea on a much larger scale. What we did was we looked at high and low socioeconomic status people, and we looked at them in two situations. We looked at them first in a baseline condition, when they were quite comfortable. And what we found was that our lower socioeconomic status people, when they were comfortable, were actually reaching out to more people. They thought of more people. They were also less constrained in how they were networking. They were thinking of more diverse people than the higher-status people. Then we asked them to think about maybe losing a job. We threatened them. And once they thought about that, the networks they generated completely differed. The lower socioeconomic status people reached inwards. They thought of fewer people. They thought of less-diverse people. The higher socioeconomic status people thought of more people, they thought of a broader network, they were positioning themselves to bounce back from that setback.
Let’s consider what this actually means. Imagine that you were being spontaneously unfriended by everyone in your network other than your mom, your dad and your dog. This is essentially what we are doing at these moments when we need our networks the most. Imagine — this is what we’re doing. We’re doing it to ourselves. We are mentally compressing our networks when we are being harassed, when we are being bullied, when we are threatened about losing a job, when we feel down and weak. We are closing ourselves off, isolating ourselves, creating a blind spot where we actually don’t see our resources. We don’t see our allies, we don’t see our opportunities.
How can we overcome this? Two simple strategies. One strategy is simply to look at your list of Facebook friends and LinkedIn friends just so you remind yourself of people who are there beyond those that automatically come to mind. And in our own research, one of the things we did was, we considered Claude Steele’s research on self-affirmation: simply thinking about your own values, networking from a place of strength. What Leigh Thompson, Hoon-Seok Choi and I were able to do is, we found that people who had affirmed themselves first were able to take advice from people who would otherwise be threatening to them.
Here’s a last exercise. I want you to look in your email in-box, and I want you to look at the last time you asked somebody for a favor. And I want you to look at the language that you used. Did you say things like, “Oh, you’re a great resource,” or “I owe you one,” “I’m obligated to you.” All of this language represents a metaphor. It’s a metaphor of economics, of a balance sheet, of accounting, of transactions. And when we think about human relations in a transactional way, it is fundamentally uncomfortable to us as human beings. We must think about human relations and reaching out to people in more humane ways.