Human beings are social animals. Some of us—the extroverts—need a lot of contact with humans. One extrovert I talked to said that he doesn't feel he exists unless he is with another person or in a group. He also confided that interpersonal exchanges energize him.
Another extrovert told me that he whiles away time whenever he is alone until he is back among friends or colleagues. He works as a salesman and sometimes talks to a hundred people daily. He loves it.
Others of us—introverts—prefer less interaction with others. I definitely fall into this category. In contrast to my extroverted friend who loses himself when he's alone, I lose myself and feel drained when surrounded by too many people for too long.
I know another person who spends much of her time gardening. She says that talking to the plants is enough communication for her.
Yet, although the amount may vary from person to person, we all need some human contact. This common need goes a long way toward explaining why solitary confinement is a universal punishment even though its negative impact on mental and physical health is well-documented.
What I didn't know, however, was that a 2010 study published by the National Institutes of Health found that the quality of someone’s relationships is a bigger predictor of early death than obesity and physical inactivity and on a par with smoking and alcohol consumption.
Financial Fitness. Physical Fitness. But Social Fitness?
Seniors are advised on financial fitness—that is, how to save money when we're younger so that we have sufficient funds to enjoy retirement. We're also advised on how to maintain our physical fitness. For example, we've been warned not to smoke, to limit alcohol consumption, to wear seat belts, to maintain an appropriate weight, and to exercise regularly.
Now we can add a new category of well-being—our social fitness.
Unique Challenges of Aging
Getting older makes it hard to remain socially fit. Friends die or move away. Or maybe a senior must move to be near offspring who can help when needed, thereby losing a network of friends. Perhaps the senior must move into an assisted living arrangement where they know no one.
Transportation to and from social events may become problematic. Hearing loss may make understanding speech more difficult. Driving at night may be challenging. Illnesses and fatigue may limit the energy to participate in community events.
Cultivating Weak Ties
One possible way to maintain social fitness is to cultivate weak ties. Nicholas Epley, a behavioral scientist, promotes the idea that talking with strangers will make us happier. He means striking up conversations with others when we're waiting in line, for example. In an interview with the New York Times, he stated, "Social connection makes us happier, healthier, and more successful and generally contributes to the sweetness of life."
I've always talked to strangers in the US, where I was speaking English to English speakers. Even now, when I talk with a service representative who speaks English, I frequently ask where they're calling me from, what the weather is like there, and maybe something related to the news.
The mini-conversations give me a lift, and I assume they do the same for the other person. But I was hesitant to converse this way in France because of my limited French language skills.
Small Talk the French Way
Yet I believe the French have a particular affinity for cultivating weak ties. For example, whether you know the person or not, a greeting is always required.
Good manners dictate a greeting to store personnel when you enter and a wish for a good day when you part company. Or a greeting to the bus driver upon entering the bus and a thank you upon departing, usually accompanied by, “Bonne journée” (“Have a good day”). You’ll say the same to the clerk who rings up your groceries.
When I first came to France with my American fondness for efficiency, I found these mini-conversations burdensome. The protocol seemed forced or artificial. Having lived here for two years, I better understand the mini-conversations’ function and willingly engage in them, albeit with an American accent.
A week ago, Expresso and I were shopping at Darty's, an electronics store, for appliances for my kitchen. The salesman spoke excellent English, which was especially helpful in understanding the features of the different models. Expresso and I inquired about how he learned his English.
We learned he was born in Spain and immigrated with his parents to France. Besides French and English, he spoke Italian and, of course, his native Spanish. He volunteered that he is studying to become an English teacher in France, as is his girlfriend.
When I mentioned I had taught English and was a writer, his eyes lit up. At the end of our conversation, we exchanged phone numbers.
I was delighted when Alejandro and Serena came to visit me after their teaching credential exams were over. They appreciated the opportunity to practice their English. And I gave them an autographed copy of Blackbird.
I do not know where the friendship will lead. Both are in their twenties, so there's quite an age gap. But I know that if Expresso or I had not asked the salesman how he learned to speak English so well, a lovely evening with apero drinks and snacks would not have occurred.
No Such Thing as Coincidences
Around that time, I came across an article in the New York Times on the importance of cultivating weak ties. Then I remembered how a grocery clerk beamed after I commented on her beautifully decorated fingernails. As she finished checking my groceries, she practiced her English on me, and I practiced my French on her.
And the other day, when a large package was delivered, the worker complimented me on my home and the lovely neighborhood I lived in. We talked about the different amenities, and he joked about the good life I enjoyed. His English was about on the same level as my French—which is pretty bad—but we managed to smile, laugh, and talk for a few minutes. If he engages each customer the same way during his day, I'm sure he goes home a bit happier than he otherwise would. And I know the exchange lifted my mood.
While waiting at the gate for my ride downtown this morning, my French neighbor Alan passed by. He asked me how I liked the heat and informed me that the temperature would reach thirty-seven degrees centigrade (ninety-nine degrees Fahrenheit).
When I responded in English that the weather was too hot for me, he insisted I speak French. From there, we proceeded to discuss our preferences for seasons and why we liked one more than the other. The conversation was a lovely interlude to my waiting.
I think this is what Epley refers to when he recommends cultivating weak ties. I don't know my neighbor Alan except for our mini-conversations when our paths cross at the mailbox. I probably won't ever see the worker who delivered the package again. I may never get the same grocery checker. And Alejandro and Serena, my English-speaking friends, may not visit me again.
But each of these conversations and occasions was complete in and of itself because I felt a little happier for having made a human connection.
These examples probably confirm I'm a beginner here in France regarding social fitness. But it's a start. I'll get braver over time and take chances to strengthen more mini-ties, even with my limited language skills. Next time I'm waiting in line at the grocery store or the doctor's office, guess what I will do?
What about you?
(Cover photo by Meruyert Gonullu on Pexels)