Classifying Relationships

All of your relationships fall into two loosely-defined buckets, strong ties and weak ties:

  1. Strong ties. Your strong ties are your family, close friends, and close professional colleagues. They are long term and high reciprocity; you help them and they help you.
  2. Weak ties. Your weak ties are usually short term and instrumental; you interact with them for a specific purpose. These ties often end when the relationship has served its purpose. You may not interact with these ties regularly, but they are important for giving you access to remote information and opportunities. The manager of your corporate mailroom is likely a weak tie to you. You interact with her only because you need something from her (e.g., you need your package weighed).

Everyone else in the world falls into two other buckets:

  1. Latent ties: Ties with people with whom you have no relationship today, but with whom it would be relatively easy to start relationships. If you graduated from Princeton in 1992, and you see that Winthrop Smithers (Princeton 1993) just got a job in your industry, he is a latent tie. You can easily approach him; you have people and a subculture in common. Anyone two degrees away from you (a friend of a friend) is also a latent tie.
  2. Strangers: As American humorist Will Rogers said, “A stranger is just a friend I haven’t met yet.”

Whether someone is a latent tie depends on three factors:

  1. How densely interconnected is the common network? In other words, do you know people in common? Because the Princeton graduate does not want to look unfriendly to your mutual friends, he is inclined to be responsive.
  2. How exclusive is your common network? The harder a club is to enter, the more tightly bound the members will be.
  3. Are you of a similar status? If you are a partner at a law firm, a partner at a similarly prestigious bank is likely to see you as a peer and be responsive.

According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the human brain is hard wired to handle a maximum of approximately 150 active social connections.

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