When you leave your country you leave behind a crucial element of your life as a human being: your social networks.* You put significant physical distance between yourself and the 150 or so people in your circle with whom, according to the Dunbar number, you have a meaningful relationship. Whether the tie between you and the individuals in your network is altered, weakened, or severed altogether depends on its strength: whereas strong ties remain strong, weak ties may disintegrate. To succeed in your integration into a new country you must create and cultivate new weak ties.
According to Michael Granovetter, writing in his famous paper “The Strength of Weak Ties” [full-text pdf],
the strength of a tie is a combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy, and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie.
Your relationships with your close family members, e.g. parents or siblings, and friends is characterized by strong ties. They persist over time and space, ground you in a community of origin, and provide an emotional foundation of your being. Strong ties remain strong with emigration, though they may weaken slightly over time.
Your relationships with classmates, coworkers, or various social circles you may be connected to through friends or by means your interests are characterized by weak ties. You severely weaken or sever these weak ties because your departure takes you out of the network, reducing the time you spend cultivating them, decreasing their emotional intensity and intimacy, and eliminating reciprocity (things you do for one another in exchange).
However, it is these weak ties that help you the most in life (if you’ve ever heard the advice not to do business with relatives or best friends, you know what I mean). As Granovetter claims,
weak ties are an important resource in making possible mobility opportunity [and] play a role in effecting social cohesion.
Because as an immigrant you arrive with few or no weak ties in your new country, in order to succeed in the new society, in terms of work, community, friendships, interests, you must create new weak ties. The smart immigrant (which I wasn’t at the outset) joins clubs or groups, seeks volunteer opportunities, goes to events or classes, connects with his expat group, and so on—any opportunity to expand your network into new groups can be beneficial. The easiest path: pursue your interests.
As soon as I joined an ice hockey rec league, formal business networking groups, or the compatriot group Ahoj PDX, my life as an immigrant improved (other factors played a role as well, of course). I have my current job thanks to a weak tie (a person I met at an unconference). In my previous business I worked with contractors and found clients through weak ties as well (e.g. people I met at trainings or networking events and people introduced by other ‘weak tie-ees’). In addition, I have been developing new strong ties (friends) by strengthening various previously weak ties (networking group member, ice hockey teammate, coworker).
Another way to think of weak ties: you can’t make it on your own. Cultivate weak ties, make it in America.
* For practical purposes in this post I set aside the effect of electronic communication tools and focus only on in-person/face-to-face/physical interactions.
Source: Michael Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties”, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 6 (May 1973), 1360-1380.
Image credit: Ian Lamont