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What are my ‘outer rings’ relationships and why do they matter?

PHOTOGRAPHY BY AMY HIBBARD
WORDS BY GENEVIEVE PHELAN

Togetherness is the tonic. 

Here’s a thought. Maybe the connections made outside of our immediate handful of friends and family matter now more than ever. These broader circles of acquaintances, lukewarm friends, new colleagues or cute local baristas have recently been coined our ‘outer rings’.

I read about the theory in a Harvard Business Review piece titled ‘Research: We’re Losing Touch with our Networks’ by Marissa King and Balázs Kovács. “During the pandemic, we’ve shifted our attention away from strangers toward strengthening relationships with family, friends, and our closest colleagues,” the article explains. 


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To define the outer rings concept, ponder this: “… If you think of your network as a series of six concentric circles that decrease in emotional intensity as you move toward the larger outer rings, the innermost circle contains the five or so people you turn to in times of severe emotional and financial distress.

“The outermost ring is made up of roughly 1,500 acquaintances or weak ties whom you would recognise by sight. When we compared the personal and work networks of hundreds of individuals pre- and post-pandemic, we found that the size of the outermost ring has shrunk.”

Huh. So there’s our issue. Lockdown-induced loneliness is one thing, but what are the more sinister long-term effects that a solitary era can have on our broader connections with new and distant humans? I spoke to a dear friend and dinner party director, Sophie McIntyre of Club Sup, who shared the aforementioned article on her socials.

Outer rings and dinner parties 

Sophie is a self-taught cook who was ready to yeet herself to Italy before lockdown ensued. Held hostage here in Melbourne, she started a series of mood-lit dinners to bring strangers together over food and wine.

I only met Sophie in March. We now share the minutiae of our daily lives via iMessage and work in tandem across creative projects. It’s safe to say she’s in my ‘inner ring’ of favourite people, but thanks to Soph, I’ve also extended my broader networks. 

Now I attend gallery nights with an art consultant, have started copywriting for some cool dinner-goers in fun lifestyle gigs, and know my old Broadsheet editor didn’t hate me for only doing a three-week internship there in 2019. My outer rings are wider and healthier for going to that Club Sup dinner on a whim.

So are Sophie’s, being in regular contact with a new vanguard of clever business-makers and cool friends. They’re “winemakers/buyers, bakers, graphic designers – you name it,” she explains. “Club Sup has connected me with this tribe of insanely compassionate, inspiring and talented people who are always so happy to let me pick their brain on things like hiring accountants, recipes etc.”

When we’re deprived of touch and togetherness and day parties and festivals and faraway sunsets, it’s vital to stay connected in other ways, especially when our hopes and dreams as individuals hang in the balance. Sometimes the best thing for bettering yourself as a creative or business owner is being around people who inspire you, soaking them in, unleashing your curiosity and hearing their stories. 

“I think it’s honestly vital to have something like Club Sup in your twenties. We get so stuck in our school or uni friendship circles and get scared to make new ones. It’s also just a bit taboo to embrace new friends for some reason. We think we can’t move beyond the friendships we’ve made at one point, but we all grow and evolve so much in our twenties. We all need that space to embrace new people and new conversations or connections,” Sophie tells me.

Nurturing your outer rings can do wonders for your mental health

For those grappling with severe mental health battles, connecting with people outside of their inner sanctum can mean everything. Having an outer circle of semi-mates who are removed from the banalities and intricacies of your everyday life is something of a tonic. You can be someone different around a stranger. I’m not saying put on a facade or mask your true self, but there’s something fun about feeling mysterious and brand new to a group of humans. Your own narrative is malleable.

I had a friend a few years back that I started getting romantically involved with. We met through mutual friends and I was quickly admitted entry to their intensely intimate circle of close mates. It only occurred to me after a while that this friend (who I developed strong feelings for) was really, really sick.

I remember flagging a freak incident one night with another guy in the group who was so grateful to know what happened. He explained to me that ‘the boys’ are so used to going out and drinking and partying together that they struggle to come together and deal with deeper stuff or the dark moments endured away from the throng of a pub. 

I asked Sophie what mental health means to her and Clup Sup’s role in remedying the pressure we – and perhaps especially young men – feel to get through stuff in silence. It turns out, fostering our ‘outer rings’ friendships goes deeper than networking and broadening social horizons. It’s about crafting a safe and warm space for conversation and connection that isn’t a beach doof or a footy game or a conventional, gendered mode of socialising.

20-something-year-old guys just don’t naturally convene around a candlelit, flower-laden table with a curated wine list and people they’ve never met before. It’s a fact. I asked Sophie why it matters so much and how to bridge that gap. 

“There’s a lot of research about our outer rings and what they give us. That’s inspiration, support, confidence, and just different perspectives. I’m passionate about men’s mental health because I think the opportunities to talk about how they’re going are pigeonholed into only a handful of opportunities,” she says. 

“You have to be open and push yourself. It’s truly like dating. Say yes to everything, volunteer, join group sport, come to Club Sup. Invite someone you don’t know that well to dinner at your house with a big group of other people you don’t know that well.”

I think some of the most deeply moving and pivotal messages I’ve received this year have been from almost strangers. They’re people that happen to read my work and have reached out to say something mattered or they’d love a hand with some pitching ideas or are studying journalism at uni and don’t know what to do next. Those distant connections have not only lifted my spirits on really grim days but totally rebooted my confidence and belief in myself/my ability (which I’ll often doubt). 

One of the most integral outer rings run-ins of late happened in – apologies – the line that wraps around Melbourne’s The Swan Hotel. On a recent night out, we inevitably clambered into the notoriously dirty bar. Before I made it through the door, a girl (maybe a few years younger than me and the friend by my side) came up and tapped me on the shoulder to ask “Are you Genevieve Phelan?”.

All I could do was laugh when she told me she and her girlfriends read my work religiously, and that I knew how to always “read the room”. That seemingly hilarious and innocent inebriated encounter has not only become a very fond anecdote of mine, but also something that made me feel important. We’ve spoken since and my outer rings have widened in diameter. 

Be it a chat with your local biz owner, a wave across the road to an old friend, a seat at Club Sup, a few minutes with a neighbour or a rogue DM to someone who inspires you, reach out. Those rings make this world go ’round. 

Genevieve Phelan is Fashion Journal’s Lifestyle & Careers Columnist. Her writing fuses introspection with investigation, calling on her own personal anecdotes and the advice of admired experts in the realms of intimacy, money, friendship, careers and love. You can find her here and here.

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