Permission to connect? How people navigate connection-confusion in outer metro growth areas

It is too often said that it is difficult to make new friends when you’re an adult; yet social connection is critical for health and wellbeing. In this guest blog, Kath Currey, Caroline Dimond and Jane Farmer report how people deal with the effort needed to make connection and some of the surprising patterns discovered in recent research.

Photo of woman using a mobile phone at night time.
Photo by mikoto.raw

From our conversations and workshops in 2022-23 with people living in Melbourne’s rapidly growing outer suburbs, we learned that people experience uncertainty about how to get social connection. This research summary gives some early insights. It highlights that people experience confusion about what is allowed and how their social reservations can stop them pursuing their dreams.

Is it ok?

A number of people talked about uncertainty and hesitation around what is acceptable. Emery reflected on her efforts to make small-talk with local café and shop owners and to smile at neighbours, but asked – is this ok? Brenda says it’s important to know your neighbours, but agrees that people don’t invite people around. She says she is: 

a bit of an introvert – introducing myself to others is difficult. I can push myself to do it, but it’s good when others help.

Strategies of connection

Examples of making connection are sometimes inventive. Some find new connection nearby through using ‘friend options’ in dating apps. Social media is regularly raised as a way to take the effort and anxiety out of maintaining connections.

The most common way for people to start attending a local activity like a book club or coffee group is by being ‘tapped on the shoulder’ by someone in your street. This type of attendance tends to ‘stick’  as the anxiety of putting yourself forward to find and meet new people is lessened. 

However, people regularly talk about their ‘wistful wants’ for connection. Charlotte talks about going to a book group because a neighbour asked her, but she really wants to be part of a group that discusses philosophy, Jung, and dreams. Like multiple others interviewed, she doesn’t think anyone else nearby would be interested in her special interest! Others talk of their wants to meet local people for: a mental health group, to discuss language and traditions, crochet, and beach walks. But they each dismiss this as something they think no-one else would want to do. One suggestion is a supported local exchange to help find others with similar interests. Charlotte has found online groups that specialise in her topics.

Insights and suggestions from the research can help to inform social prescribing, community development, and wellbeing programs. The role of people and community in helping themselves and each other is strong, but ‘light-touch’ support from agencies and organisations to support this can boost peoples’ efforts, if evidence-based, co-created and done well.

To discover how people navigate this, gaps, and what should be done, register for Achieving Social Connection and Community Resilience: Joining the dots between policy, practice, research and community on 6 June 2023. And in the meantime check out this first summary of our research findings, featured in the Social Connection Collection.

Photo of Professor Jane Farmer standing in front of a wall of graffiti

Professor Jane Farmer is a leader, collaborator, social innovator and Chief Investigator on the ARC Linkage project, Activating Social Connection in Australia (LPLP200301335). Check out her guide, Social Connection 101.

Kath Currey is a Lived Experience Innovation and Design Coordinator supporting Neami National’s partnership in the Activating Social Connection Project.

Caroline Dimond is the Innovation Design Lead at Neami National; supporting the Activating Social Connection Project in the Whittlesea local area.

If you are interested in partnering with APO to promote your research or policy work,
get in contact with APO Director, Associate Professor Brigid van Wanrooy.

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