The Benefits of Having Diverse Friends and How to Learn from Them
I am blessed with having friends of all sorts, from so many countries, religions, ethnicities, experience and professions. There are values in such diversity that you may not expect.
I am very lucky that I live in a society that is diverse and multi-cultural. Where I live, in Melbourne Australia, is a large city with people and communities from all over the world. When we are not in lockdown we can chose from any nationality for dining. My favourite restaurant is an Afghan one I’ve been going to for over 30 years, with the same family owning it. My daughter has grown up there and they know us well. Other long time favourites are Italian, Japanese and Indian.
The combination of living where I do and of having careers in academia, art and technology mean that my friendship group is amazingly diverse. From Australian’s whose family came on the convict ships to British, Scottish (those barbarians from north of Hadrian’s Wall ;) and representatives from most continents and so many countries, the diversity is huge.
In my closest friends I include Italian, Greek, Pakistani, Serbian, Bosnian, Vietnamese, Maltese, Indian, atheists, Christians (of various flavours), Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and Pagans. I have family living in South America. I have taught and still do students from almost every country in the world. I correspond with people everywhere. My friends extend from trades people and single parents who struggle to multi-millionaire investors.
The Values of Diversity
Now the above is not to brag about my friends, it is to show what is possible and the base for what I am about to say.
When you operate in a small, narrow world of contacts it is all too easy to become small and narrow yourself. Your thinking is reaffirmed by your contacts and no one challenges your thinking. Your beliefs solidify and become more rigid.
With diverse friends and contacts someone will always disagree with you. This is fantastic. When someone disagrees with you or has a different perspective this is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to expand.
Some of my friends and I have major points of disagreement. This varies from religion to economics and science, art and philosophy. Even politics. These could be points of separation if we let them. But that is a choice that we chose not to make.
Lessons I’ve Learned
I have and continue to learn so much from my friends and contacts. In fact I try to from everyone I meet, even if only a passing connection.
The core lesson I’ve learned is that everyone is the same. Irrespective of race, religion, politics, education, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, age and interests, we all share the human experience. We all have loves and hates, damage and injuries from the past, hopes and fears for the future, lessons still to learn and ones that we have mastered, strengths and weaknesses, abilities and blind spots. Everyone believes they are a good person and that their actions are right. Most people are trying to do their best all the time. Everyone wants a better life for their children than they had.
Another fundamental lesson I have learned is that, in anything dealing with people, there are always at least two perspectives, and all have validity. Recognising the validity doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, just that you should not dismiss something out of hand.
Yet another is that everyone has wisdom, even if they do not recognise it in themselves.
So What Do You Need to Do?
To have and maintain diverse friends, and to learn from the experience, requires a number of things.
Openness and a willingness to share is a foundation. You need to be willing to share what you know, expose your humanity and be vulnerable.
Trust is a core part of making any relationship work. Trust has been a hard one for me having been hurt in the past. But I have overcome this through constant work and a realisation that what did I really have to lose anyway?
Honesty is required, especially for trust to exist. People know when others are lying or holding back. I try to always practice radical honesty, but with tact and a real caring for the impact of my words on others.
Being able to really listen is required. And I am not talking about normal listening. I am speaking of listening with every part of your mind, body and spirit. People often communicate much in what they do not say verbally.
Complete presence is needed to make the other person feel truly comfortable and valued, and for each to get the most out of the conversation. This means not thinking about what you have to do tomorrow, what point you want to make or how your underwear is too tight. For most people this requires real work and practice. Intent to be present helps while you are trying to get it.
Courage is needed to discuss the challenging topics. I’m English, so I was brought up not to discuss the difficult topics of politics, religion and sex (and football in some places). But these are the interesting topics (well not football ;). What I’ve found is that if you show interest, honesty and openness, any topic can be discussed.
Curiosity drives it all. You need to be genuinely curious about everything and everyone.
The Pay Offs
Apart from the obvious ones of great friends and great food, the payoffs are huge.
Being open to discuss anything has made me a better educator. It has widened my perspective and understanding of so many topics, something you must have to teach well in my opinion. It has also made me a better husband, father and friend.
It helps me to make connections I might not otherwise make. Making connections between unexpected things is the heart of creativity, and I strive to be creative in my thinking at all times.
I am less judgemental as a result. By recognising the complexity of situations and perspectives it helps you to see things from another perspective.
Being more flexible comes from this too. I am comfortable with my ideas changing as I learn more and I tend to phrase things as ‘at the moment, I think that …’. Another favourite expression of mine is “Monday, Wednesday and Friday I believe …, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday I believe …, and Sunday I have no idea”. This attitude is very helpful as it also shows others I am willing to change my thinking on the basis of new information.
Happiness flows from the depth of your connections with others. The above approaches encourage depth to your relationships, rather than the shallowness of so much of the world.
Let me wrap this up with a real example. Some years back after a funeral for one of my parents-in-law we had everyone back at the house for a meal, including the Catholic priest who arrived later. I had always got on great with him, despite our differences, and so I sat with him while he ate. We were chatting and I decided to ask him about the issue of paedophile priests that was in the news at the time. He was actually grateful that I asked him how it affected him, because no one else had. He disclosed how angry he was with them and with the way the church handled it. It had changed the way he did his ministry through no fault of his own. No one trusted him with children anymore. People looked at him differently. His way of life had been changed for the worse by the actions of others. In that moment, through my courage to ask and his willingness to be vulnerable, we connected in a very special way. I hope it helped him by at least being heard by one other person.
Frankly the world needs more diversity and more acceptance of each other. We need wider perspectives if we are to survive, grow and flourish. We need more knowledge from diverse sources and far more flexibility in our thinking. I hope this article will encourage you to try.