Let’s talk about…Connecting through little interactions

Fostering connection through small, ‘sweet’ gestures

Social interactions post-Covid

Back in July 2022, I wrote a column following a relatively unassuming interaction I’d had on the bus one afternoon.

After talking briefly to an older man at the bus stop, I was taken aback when he opted to take the seat right beside me so we could continue our chat on the journey towards Galway. At the time, we were only really beginning to get back to ‘normal’, just starting to return to the routines and customs of daily life pre-Covid, and as such, dealing with all the anxiety that came with that – and despite the politeness of the man in question and the objectively low stakes, when he first sat down I was no exception to this experiencing this anxiety.

This sort of apprehension or avoidance towards the littlest of social interactions was at a universal peak at the time, following months of restricted social connection and lockdowns. Even the least anxiety-prone among us had a bit of a (re-)learning curve to contend with.

But as true as it is to say social anxiety spiked after restrictions ended, it’s also true that finally getting to engage properly with our communities again for the first time in years did a world of good for the damage done during restrictions.

Whatever teething problems we all had to grapple with going from isolation to opening up again, returning to sharing those small, everyday interactions played a vital role in rebuilding social connections and restoring a sense of normality. A conversation with a stranger on the bus, getting talking to someone in a pub, being able to chat to the people you meet out shopping instead of having to leg it as soon as the list’s ticked off – these are all very minor social interactions individually, easily brushed off as trivial or inconsequential… that is, unless you’ve gone two years without any of them.

The process of returning to pre-lockdown norms highlighted this to me – the significance of what seemingly little, casual interactions can do to foster a sense of connection, belonging, and social cohesion within communities. It highlighted to me the importance of these things, in no small part because of how magnified issues like isolation had become during the pandemic. But of course, isolation and loneliness did not start, or end, with the pandemic and its restrictions and lockdowns.

As much as it undoubtedly served to exacerbate the problem, loneliness was an issue that was on the rise well before the pandemic hit. And now, four years on exactly from when Ireland first introduced restrictions (March 12th, 2020), many of the other factors that feed into this loneliness problem have not only been maintained, but in many cases, amplified.


Wider issue of rising loneliness

In many ways, modern lifestyles, characterised by urbanisation, technology, and changing social structures, are more prone to fuelling isolation and a sense of disconnection.

In Ireland, growing urbanisation and rural depopulation in recent years has had a two-pronged effect when it comes to loneliness; cities and more urbanised areas tend to be lacking (to some degree) in a sense of community and can feel overly fast-paced and impersonal, and meanwhile the rural population left behind experience depleted social connection and support networks.

And as technology becomes a bigger part of nearly every facet of our lives, it becomes more and more obvious that while on its face, technology should serve as a boon for human communication, offering opportunities to communicate with anyone instantly from anywhere, paradoxically, our reliance on technology can lead us away from each other, replacing face-to-face interactions with less substantial digital communication, or just leading to us (in an unbalanced approach) opting to entertain ourselves with our phones or laptops instead of through socialisation.

We also live in a country whose decades-long-established social structures are undergoing massive change. I wrote about the Catholic Church in modern Ireland a few weeks ago, and in that column, I spoke about how historically so many of our communities and supports were under the institution’s umbrella, and as we begin to move away from being the Catholic country we once were, it’s important we establish secular communities and supports in their place because if not, the gap they leave behind will only foster isolation – and to a degree, already has. And the same goes for other things like our changing work structures, with remote working and an increased focus on individuals’ productivity over interpersonal workplace morale, etc, inadvertently doing away with aspects of the working day that used to provide opportunities for social interaction.

This transition away from traditional social structures leaves many without the familiar networks and support systems they once relied on. Without these foundational pillars of support, individuals can easily find themselves feeling increasingly isolated and disconnected from the communities whom their connections to once felt natural.

Because when we transition to feeling more isolated, it can be very hard to transition back. There is an intrinsically cyclical nature to this problem for those struggling with it, because loneliness begets loneliness; once you get used to isolation, retuning to connection (and even just trying to) sparks a lot of anxiety for people. And we can become complacent, develop tendencies that lead us away from those little opportunities for connection – we don’t say hi to the person next to us on the train when we sit down or ask the shopkeeper how their day’s going, small things that might make the mundane more personable.


The impact of small, ‘sweet’ gestures

On one of my more recent trips to Galway, I sat down at a table another passenger was already seated at, and admittedly forwent the opportunity to politely smile and say hi. And that would’ve been that, the two of us would’ve gone about the rest of the journey without interacting with each other – were it not for the fact that after a few minutes, a man came into the carriage offering around a box of sweets.

When he came to our table and offered us one, the other passenger asked why he was giving them out. He explained that it was something he did as part of ‘Confounders’, an initiative set up in 2023 aiming to “do something positive and be a channel of hope”.

The man explained to us that the initiative’s tenets of hope, compassion, and activism are rooted in a Christian ethos, but made the distinction that this meant they were concerned with being “radically loving” as opposed to looking over their shoulder at an institution. Stepping outside of traditional church frameworks also allows for the emphatic support he indicated Confounders having when it comes to issues like anti-racism and LGBTQ+ rights, and social justice/activism.

One thing Confounders does regularly, which we had just been lucky enough to experience, is give out free sweets to people, a practice he explained began in an ER waiting room, as a way to bring some small bit of joy into what was undoubtedly a tough day for all there, before eventually evolving to include public transport and other places.

In speaking to us, it was wholly evident just how passionate he was about his cause, particularly about the power that seemingly small gestures can do in uplifting other people. He mentioned something that often happens when he’s going around giving out sweets – he’ll run into someone who’s having a hard time or who just needs someone to talk to, and not only does it brighten their day to be offered a free treat, but also it opens up the opportunity to have a conversation for a bit, to engage in a moment of meaningful connection with a stranger, something he said he’s always more than happy to do.

He ended up staying chatting to us for a good few minutes, and the three of us had a very lovely, albeit brief, conversation about the importance of connection and kindness now more than ever – a conversation that after he left, the other passenger and I continued all the way through to Ceannt Station. They were both very positive, wholesome interactions that I went away smiling from – as small as they were – and thinking now of how much the experience brightened my own evening when I’d already been having a perfectly fine one in the first place, I could only imagine what such interactions had done for others for whom this was not the case.

When we talk about loneliness, it can be hard to imagine what the answer is. It feels much easier to point at solutions for other prevalent societal problems; look at the housing crisis and decry landlords, look at the economy and call for policy changes, etc. And while we can (and indeed should) look for ways to tackle social isolation through more structural or political solutions – for example, spending money on awareness campaigns, social clubs, community initiatives, etc – the issue cannot be completed solved without the continual practice of human kindness and empathy in our small, daily interactions.

It doesn’t have to be buying and giving out a box of sweets, but it’s worth keeping in mind how far small acts of kindness (like a smile, a friendly greeting, or holding open the door), and small bids for social connection (like asking a stranger about their day or reaching out to a new neighbour), can go in terms of fostering a sense of human connection or belonging within our communities. As mentioned, I would imagine some bigger, structural and political solutions will be required in tandem to tackle this issue, but I believe that a great deal can be solved simply with how we treat the people that fill our lives – from our friends, family, and communities, to the strangers we meet on the train.