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How Socioeconomic Status Affects the Way We Network

It’s been said that COVID-19 places us in the same storm, but in different boats. That is, the pandemic is deadlier to some more than others physically, economically and psychologically. Yet all of us are united by a need to connect with others, especially in crisis.

Our research, conducted before this pandemic, examined how people of high and low socioeconomic status varied in activating their networks when they faced job threats (versus situations of greater job stability). Specifically, by analyzing large-scale national-survey data and conducting an experiment, we studied how threatening situations caused economically diverse people to call on a distinctive structure of friends, family members and acquaintances. Drawing from these findings, we consider the unique challenge that this particular crisis presents: How do we draw support from and strengthen social connections, particularly given the obstacles physical distancing presents?

Consider two responses to job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Brianna Davis, a recent Arizona State graduate and content creator at a marketing technology company, Student Beans, was laid off abruptly. She immediately informed her LinkedIn network — leading to both emotional support and a few industry connections. We refer to this response as “widening,” or expanding networks beyond one’s inner circle.

By contrast, Tara Burns was a cook in a Cleveland restaurant that shut down because of the pandemic. She responded to job loss by turning to her inner circle: managers who allowed her to stock up on perishable food from the restaurant and helped her file for unemployment, friends who offered her financial support, and an understanding landlord. We refer to this as “winnowing,” or drawing inward to smaller, tighter networks.

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Through our research, we wanted to examine why people might winnow or widen in crises, and whether socioeconomic status might matter. We first analyzed data in the General Social Survey (a large, representative sample of Americans). We discovered that when people of high or low socioeconomic status experienced job threats, people of lower socioeconomic status tended to winnow (reporting smaller, more constrained networks), whereas people of higher socioeconomic status tended to widen (reporting larger, less constrained networks). We confirmed these patterns in an experiment.

Why do these distinct responses matter? In crises, we all need comfort from our inner circles. But when individuals of higher socioeconomic status like Brianna widen to contacts with more novel information and opportunity, Mark Granovetter’s research on the strength of weak ties suggests they would position themselves to rebound from threats.

Why are people of higher socioeconomic status more likely to widen under threat? Our follow-up research indicated that people who feel in control of their environments — such as those with status — can confidently reach outside their social comfort zone to people who are more likely to ignore and reject them than close friends or family. The calculations of the poorest are also based on learned experience. Sandra Susan Smith’s research reveals that poorer African Americans struggled to leverage help from their higher-status contacts, who did not want to risk their own reputation by recommending potentially unreliable candidates. This is stigma: The poor had the connections, but others did not want the association.

Although this crisis has presented distinctive challenges to all of us, we are each anchored by our relationships. No matter what your situation is at this difficult time, consider the following four ways to develop support networks.

REINFORCE YOUR STRONGEST TIES.

Today, social distancing limits our ability to give or receive support from even our closest ties. We are celebrating birthdays, weddings and other milestones on video chat, forcing people to improvise creative ways to bond. Yet the crisis offers a unique opportunity to cement your strongest ties. Adam Grant’s work on giving — particularly his insight that givers are more likely to reap long-run gains — takes on special significance at this moment. Our friend’s husband has cancer, yet she buys groceries for her 90-year-old neighbors, for example. We’ve heard countless stories of such selfless generosity. In times of need, generosity strengthens your strong ties, sowing the seeds for lifelong reciprocity.

WIDEN THE NET.

Our ability to widen has also been interrupted. Students are graduating amid hiring freezes and they face rescinded job offers. Their impulse is to reach out broadly, but they cannot actively network for jobs when companies are fighting other fires. People can’t attend conferences or gather in public spaces, so their networks are at a standstill. Likewise, the urban poor depend on “disposable ties,” weakly connected helpers who enter and exit their lives rapidly to cope with poverty’s daily challenges.

Networking in normal times already feels uncomfortable: connecting with people for instrumental purposes rather than as ends in themselves. In a worldwide crisis, asking for favors feels particularly self-centered. But crises offer an opportunity to widen the chain of reciprocity from a stronger place: giving versus asking.

WINNOW, THEN WIDEN.

Not all of us can be like Brianna, tapping LinkedIn minutes after getting the pink slip. These are confidence-destroying moments for anyone, but the feelings of shame and vulnerability can be particularly profound for those of lower economic status. Our other research has indicated a strategy to attenuate this natural paralysis so that we can reach out for help under threat: Winnow, then widen. Drawing from Claude Steele’s research, we asked people to affirm themselves first. One technique is to simply think of close friends and family who build us up. After we prompted people to affirm themselves, we found that people were then more willing to approach threatening information sources and expand their networks. Rather than being depleted by the threats, they reminded themselves that they had the psychological and social resources to bounce back — so they could courageously reach out for help.

REVIVE OLD RELATIONSHIPS.

Rather than locate entirely new network contacts through cold calling and other tactics, the crisis offers a chance to reconnect with “dormant ties”: for instance, a former boss you lost touch with or an old classmate you occasionally see on social media. Normally, it’s awkward to email out the blue, but this crisis offers a rationale (a check-in without an ask, simply based on genuine friendship), allowing us to replenish our reservoir with strong, supportive ties from the past.

In the absence of these physical interactions with others, we’re vulnerable to mental health challenges and economic dislocation — whatever boat we’re in. The disease may not have a vaccine yet, but we inoculate ourselves from these other threats by strengthening our relationships, even from a distance.

Tanya Menon is an associate professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. Leigh Thompson is a professor of dispute resolution and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, where Edward “Ned” Smith is an associate professor of management.

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