Have you ever watched a small child enter a new social situation?
Perhaps it’s a playgroup or a local park. Depending on the child, she will likely take a while to play on the perimeter and observe the others, before picking someone to play beside.
Eventually, the child will interact with the strangers, finding some point of common interest -- the same yellow shovel, a cute flower on both their dresses. She doesn’t mind if they’re boys or girls, black or white. She doesn’t ask about religion or politics. She just finds something in common and makes a new friend.
It’s remarkable, really. And according to research on the science of networking, it’s something that adults should be emulating.
The sad truth is that people instinctively gravitate toward people like themselves. This is the easiest way to form associations -- we know that people like us will share the same norms. And if they broadly share our opinions about the world, we won’t have to deal with too much conflict. Sounds great, right?
The dark side to this is that if we are naturally inclined to befriend people who look like us, share the same religion and politics and maybe even have common cultural backgrounds, we are not as open to befriending people of other cultures, religions and social classes. As a result, our opinions and beliefs are quite narrow because we continually look for people who support and affirm our long-held beliefs.
Even darker perhaps is that children develop the tendency to discriminate as young as age six. It’s around this time they start to notice differences between themselves and other children. Have you observed that when your little boy was a pre-schooler he invited more girls to his birthday parties or played with whichever kid happened to be at the park, regardless of skin colour, age or clothing? Yet, if you look at his current group of friends, are they -- and their families -- more like him and his family? Are they the same gender? Do they play the same sports? Do they worship at the same church? Probably. And chances are your own friends belong to that same, homogenous circle, too.
There are obvious repercussions to this when it comes to creating policies designed to enhance diversity in workplaces, schools and society. At a more personal level, however, unless we reconcile this tendency to hang out with our own kind, we are also limiting our own ability to grow and innovate.
It’s commonly known that stretching ourselves through new experiences -- travel, jobs, education -- is the only way to change and grow. It’s the same thing when it comes to people. If, as individuals, we’re interested in learning about new things, constantly evolving our thinking and enriching our lives, it’s primarily through people we meet that we will achieve the most or have the most valuable exchanges of information.
But if we want to diversify our network, we have to do it purposely and consciously. And that’s not easy. It means positioning yourself as an outsider -- a minority, if you will -- in every social encounter. There are, however, a few easy ways to get started.
The next time you go to an event that you regularly attend -- say a meeting or a cocktail party -- seek out one person that you’ve never spoken to before. Ask him questions about himself. Find out why he’s attending the event. Ultimately, try to find something in common with him. Make a point to have a number of interactions like this each month and watch as your network becomes a mosaic. If you really want to stretch yourself, attend a class or a lecture that you think is completely outside your realm of interest. You may be surprised at who you meet there.
More importantly, however, teach your school-aged children to do the same. Guide them to befriend outsiders that come on the perimeters of their own, established social circles. It’s by teaching our children that we can best shape our future. Let’s make it an open, accepting and innovative one.