by: Chris Warren
It is a natural tendency to associate with people similar to ourselves. We embrace the familiar, and that’s why big cities have Chinatowns and Greektowns, Jewish and Polish neighborhoods, and a gathering of pretty much every nationality and faith. As a practical matter, it makes perfect sense. People from the same culture can be a true community, speak their own language, eat their own foods, and observe their holidays and traditions. It feels warm and belonging.
Practicalities aside, gravitating towards those similar to ourselves to the exclusion of all others cuts us off from viewpoints and insights that cannot be gained from confinement in a homogenous group. There is a benefit to stepping outside of our cultural comfort zones. In some cases, it’s not voluntary. Going to school or work, we don’t always get to pick who we hang around with. Nothing forces one to learn something about interpersonal relations like sharing a classroom or work space with someone who is totally different than you. There are a small number of inquisitive adventurers who consciously seek relationships with people outside their own demographic. Most of the rest of us go for the default of keeping company with our own kind whenever possible.
I have a lot of friends who are Not Like Me. I hate to use the word “diverse” because of its political correctness implications, but in my case the adjective fits. For context, I am a generic American white guy. Of the six people I consider my true close friends, only two of them are also American-born white guys. The rest include one from Vietnam, one from the Philippines, one from India; and one American-born, first-generation hispanic who spent a good chunk of his childhood living in Mexico. I’m not fishing for compliments about how open minded I am since I did not purposely go looking for these people. It just organically happened: I meet someone, the personalities click, and it takes off from there. If I appear enlightened about my eclectic circle of friends, it’s because they inspired me to reach out, not because I have a built-in curiosity about others.
Perhaps more than anything else, these Not Like Me friends have given me an understanding of how good it really is here in the USA. I know patriotism can be a overplayed sentiment, but there is no ignoring that the blessing of life in America became a lot more meaningful when I developed a close friendship with a guy who as a young boy was driven out of his native Vietnam by communism and the brutal violence that always comes with it. Or the hispanic kid from economically depressed Aurora, Illinois who, in spite of being just as much a “real American” as anyone on Mount Rushmore, did not have the same opportunities as kids in the upscale town a few miles away. Still, he respects himself and is not just scratching by, but is thriving and growing in the midst of a daily existence that would put the average suburban white boy into full hissy fit meltdown mode.
Anyone who has never witnessed in person a United States citizenship swearing in ceremony is missing an amazingly moving experience. I’ve attended two, in support of friends. There were old men, young men, mothers holding babies, entire families, flowers, flags, and an ocean of joyful tears. Most of the new citizens endured years, possibly decades, of difficulties and hardships to arrive at point I had attained merely by being born in the right place. I may have never seen it that way but for having friends Not Like Me.
Avoiding different people by design does not automatically make one a xenophobe; it does needlessly limit our world view and opportunity to experience others. It’s like having pizza for lunch every single day: There is nothing wrong with it, but every day we have pizza is a day we deny ourselves the chance to try something else. Applying this concept to relationships, the answer is not to dump our “pizza friends,” but complement them with friends of a flavor we may have never considered before.
Very few people purposely set themselves up with a group of buddies who look like they came out of a United Nations meeting. Through a string of crazy coincidences and genuine blessings, that’s exactly what happened to me. Cultural differences are only as much of a problem as you allow them to be. By the way, none of this should be taken as a snub to my generic American white guy friends as they are a big deal to me too. But being pushed beyond the similar, even by accident, has kept me from falling into a “pizza every day” rut. Friends are important and enriching, and it’s just fine if they’re Not Like Me.