Quick – think about the people you have in your life, whether they’re your close friends or acquaintances or old friend group from college. You might have some minor differences with a few of them. Maybe there are differences in personality (while you’ve always been on the shy side, your best friend couldn’t be more extroverted). Or maybe there are differences in interests (your friend group has always been far more invested in pop culture happenings than you are). Or maybe there are differences in background (your work friend grew up in a tiny mountain town while you grew up in a big city by the coast).
Whatever differences you might have with them, chances are that they’re on the small side, encompassing things like music preferences and personality quirks and different tastes in guys. But on the whole, you likely aren’t all that different from the people you call your friends. And this isn’t a bad thing on its own. In fact, we’re hardwired to seek out people who are relatively similar to us.
The homophily principle describes our tendency as humans to choose to associate with people who are like us, whether in their backgrounds, their values, or the views they hold. We look for people who will understand us, who will make us feel affirmed in who we are and comfortable to be our true selves, and who we feel we have something important in common with. We deeply desire to know that there are like-minded individuals, and, in turn, to find them.
And according to a study co-authored by researchers at Wellesley College and the University of Kansas, we evaluate whether or not someone will be this kind of friend for us rather quickly. “Picture two strangers striking up a conversation on a plane, or a couple on a blind date. From the very first moments of awkward banter, how similar the two people are is immediately and powerfully playing a role in future interactions. Will they connect? Or walk away? Those early recognitions of early similarity are consequential in that decision,” says Angela Bahns, assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley College.
This tendency comes down to our desire to not just survive, but to thrive as well. “You try to create a world where you’re comfortable, where you succeed, where you have people you can trust and with whom you can cooperate to meet your goals. To create this, similarity is very useful, and people are attracted to it most of the time,” says Chris Crandall of the same study, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas.
We do need to surround ourselves with such individuals, people who are our kindred spirits in this way. But focusing too heavily on having friends whom we share everything in common with can end up leading us down a bad path. Creating an echo chamber of similarity can create in us a reluctance to accept or engage with anything we don’t understand, aren’t familiar with, or haven’t experienced before – and in turn, we become close-minded.
Disallowing all variety in our friend groups can cause us to be suspect of others and cut ourselves off from people we used to associate with, the sole reason being that they are not exactly like us. And it’s no secret that this kind of distrust of the “other” camp creates a toxic environment where we all stick to our own kind and suspiciously eye anyone who isn’t in our group, treating them almost as a different species.
Having friends who are different from you, whether in their religious beliefs, their cultural background, their generation, their political leanings, their various opinions, or their outlook on life isn’t something to stay away from at all costs. There are actually multiple benefits to allowing diversity in the company we keep.
It Makes Us More Empathetic
Empathy is a positive character quality that has been turned into somewhat of a buzzword in more recent years. In the United States, Google searches for the word “empathy” dramatically increased after 2010, but especially after 2016. Safe to say, during the years when many in the United States have felt more divided than ever, it’s interesting that more and more people were searching for this term – one that we don’t exhibit nearly as much as we think we do, according to a 2014 study.
In order to have empathy, we must put our sensitivity toward someone into action.
Defined by Merriam-Webster, empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” From this definition, it’s clear that empathy isn’t passive – it’s proactive. In order to have empathy, we must put our sensitivity toward someone into action.
What might this action look like? Well, befriending someone, for one. Forging an active friendship with someone who, on the surface, is pretty different from us. Having friends whose upbringing, background, and beliefs mean that they hold values that we don’t will inevitably make us more empathetic, because by associating with them, we are actively empathizing with (and, in turn, humanizing) a person whose life has been entirely different from ours.
Why is it important to have empathy, you ask? While empathy is a muscle that requires development, it allows us to forge deep, meaningful, lasting connections with others, says Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D. Dr. Segal also shares that having empathy actually lowers our stress, as it helps build a greater ability to regulate our own emotions.
It Encourages Open-Mindedness
If we’re totally honest, our understanding of the world is relatively limited. We can only truly understand what we experience, making our perspective one that is narrower than we might think. One way we can attempt to widen our perspective to include a deeper understanding of things we have not experienced firsthand is through friendship. But if we surround ourselves with individuals who have similar experiences, beliefs, and lives, this only serves to reinforce our limited understanding.
Choosing to step outside our circle and befriend someone who, for example, holds different religious beliefs than we do enables us to interact with an entirely different set of beliefs and fosters open-mindedness – not for the sake of taking our own views less seriously or expecting them to do so, but simply to broaden our horizons. This kind of openness to new experiences and willingness to see new perspectives tends to be present in people who are creative, intellectually curious, and imaginative – and allowing diversity into our lives can actually stimulate creativity. It also leads us to be less susceptible to having blind spots and holding uninformed biases.
Forging a friendship with someone who believes differently reduces our prejudice and tendency to rely on untruthful stereotypes.
We aren’t fraternizing with the enemy by attempting to forge a friendship with someone who believes differently than we do, but instead reducing our own prejudice and tendency to rely on untruthful or harmful stereotypes.
It’s Beneficial to Our Growth
We might assume that only having friends who affirm and agree with what we believe, how we live, and what we value would be of the greatest benefit to our growth. And certainly, having people who are able to identify with us on such a deep level is crucial to our sense of belonging. We do need people who are like us.
But, according to Elisabeth Shaw, CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, a nonprofit organization specializing in mental health, having friends who are different from us is also important to our mental health and overall growth: “[It] reduces discrimination, and is an opportunity for growth… [we] offer more generosity and compassion in terms of our connection with others.”
It Challenges Us To Contend with Other Ideas and Learn New Things
When we’re only ever around those who confirm what we already believe to be true, we aren’t challenged to think all that deeply about our beliefs, or reflect on our values, or consider whether our opinions make sense. Very little is questioned or explored, because we’re all in agreement.
But the one thing that we definitely gain from having friends who believe differently than we do? We’re faced with new concepts, ideas, and beliefs, and have to learn how to intelligently engage with them rather than ignoring them or quickly writing them off. A friend who believes something totally different from us can present us with new information, perspectives we hadn’t yet considered, and ways of seeing an issue, and vice versa. Even if neither we nor our friend end up changing our views, we can be glad knowing that the beliefs we hold are informed.
Friendship often thrives on similarity, but this doesn’t mean that friends with their differences can’t forge a deeper connection or that we should avoid anyone who isn’t just like us at all costs. Having friends whose religious beliefs, cultural background, or political opinions aren’t exactly like ours shouldn’t necessarily be cause for concern – in fact, this kind of friendship has its own unique benefits, provided that both people are respectful of the other’s opinions.
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