Before the pandemic, I started a friendship with a woman named Erin.
We met on an organized women's group camping trip in Northern California, late summer in 2019. After the trip, Erin and I started a text conversation, and soon went out on a hike together. But shortly after, COVID-19 came to the San Francisco Bay Area, and I knew for certain that I probably wouldn't see Erin again until this all blew over. Though I felt that we had become casual acquaintances, we weren't close enough to stay in touch indefinitely, and the group hikes— our main connection — ended indefinitely.
We probably all have an Erin or two in our lives, meaning an acquaintance from pre-pandemic that we lost touch with. According to a May 2021 American Perspectives Survey, roughly half of Americans reported having lost touch with at least one friend during the pandemic. I certainly felt that I had multiple "Erins" in my life — casual acquaintances that I would run into or see occasionally, but who disappeared from my life as the pandemic went on and my social circle shrank.
Ty Gibson, a Texas-based attorney, told me he went from hanging out with work colleagues and friends every week to not seeing them for months. Yet he felt like his inner circle remained the same — and he believes he gets along better with his close friends now.
"But I have found that I have lost contact with quite a few of my acquaintances which I used to consider friends," Gibson said. "As soon as that face-to-face contact was gone, we didn't really have a reason to talk or interact."
Melendy Britt, a public relations consultant and president of the LA chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, told me her social circle "shrunk to unknown levels" during the pandemic. Until she got vaccinated, the only people she saw were her immediate family.
"Even though my mom, dad and sister were relatively close by at some stage of the pandemic, just the fact they lived in a different house meant there was a level of insecurity we all felt, even when vaccines were available," Britt said. "A simple lunch was never so simple — could we take off our masks in comfort?"
Britt added one of the most challenging parts of the pandemic was making " tough choices about friends."
"Even if I could gather, would I want to with a person who holds such diametrically different approaches to their pandemic life choices," Britt said. "I had to end a friendship – or at least press pause – with a friend from over 40 years just because we had very different viewpoints on social responsibility."
It turns out that the loss of such connections, even of mere acquaintances, have an impact on one's mental health—especially if that person is an extrovert.
Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of "Joy From Fear," told me it's important to think of our social circles like a web, in which various circles intersect and overlap. Within that web, a person has acquaintances, people who are more than acquaintances (but not that close), closer friendships and intimate relationships. During the pandemic, many people lost part of their web.
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.
"And that can be hard on the psyche, because although we rely on those more intimate friendships, even weaker or looser ties are still part of our social fabric," Manly said. "It's nice for us to know that we have these other degrees of friendships and acquaintances because they are a part of our network, and it does feel good to us psychologically, especially people who are more more extroverted, tend to like knowing they have a broader band of acquaintances to reach out and socialize with."
Manly added that people who rely on others for a sense of joy and fulfillment have experienced more of a sense of loss throughout the pandemic due to losing these weaker connections. In sociology, there is a term known as "weak ties," which was introduced by sociologist Mark Granovetter. In 1973, Granovetter published a paper entitled "The Strength of Weak Ties"; in it, Granovetter showed that a person's well-being doesn't only depend on the quality of relationship with close friends and family, but that quantity matters, too. For example, Granovetter surveyed 282 Boston-based workers and found that most of them got their jobs through someone they knew, but only a small percentage of those job recommendations came from close friends. Instead, 84 percent of those surveyed got their jobs from people they saw occasionally — casual friends, or acquaintances. The paper caused his colleagues to rethink the importance of the quality versus quantity of human relationships.
More recent research by psychologist Gillian Sandstrom found that weak ties are connected to a person's emotional well-being. In one study, she found that people are happier on days when they say "hi" to a coworker or have a brief conversation with a neighbor at the grocery store.
Psychologist Cynthia Halow believes that initially adjusting to pandemic life left little time for socialization with those with whom we weren't very close to before the coronavirus took hold.
"It has hampered the intention to connect with others, outside of our homes," Halow said. "As we avoided contracting the virus, we also set aside time spent with friends."
And of course, there were the health risks.
For some people, these pre-pandemic connections might be better left off in the past. For others, Dr. Manly said, as the world opens for now, it might be worth reaching out to former acquaintances again.
"If you're feeling a thirst to renew connections, absolutely, reach out to people where ties have loosened, bring them back into your fold in warm connective ways," Manly said, adding that the same thought has possibly crossed their minds. "If a person declines to do that, because they're content with a more pared back social network, don't take it personally, and realize that the pandemic has given most of us, if not all of us, the opportunity to look at what works for us and what doesn't work for us."
Read more on pandemic sociology: