As we head into a New Year, my hope is that more people will remember how to make friends like a 5-year-old.
On my first day of kindergarten, I didn’t know anyone in the class. So, I did the human thing and looked for a friend. I quickly found her at the closet cubbies. Amy, I discovered, was wearing the same tennis shoes as me. We smiled at each other and were instant friends. That’s all it took at age 5.
Our friendship lasted years, not because we wore the same shoes, but because we decided to be friends and built on that. As we spent time together, we discovered and developed common interests and shared memories.
After we learned to read, in first or second grade, we read some of the same stories. In fifth grade, we took band together and learned to play instruments. In junior high we joined the basketball team. Woven throughout was a friendship I remember with fondness.
We also had a lot of differences, but those didn’t matter.
All kids have commonalities and differences. All people do. But I worry that too many adults look for differences first, then use those differences to disqualify people as potential friends. Sadly, it seems that more and more parents are doing the same filtering for their kids’ friendships. That kid in school doesn’t get invited to the birthday party because he, or his parents, don’t match a prescribed checklist.
If you walked into a party full of strangers and the host handed you a sheet of empty name tags and told you to write five labels to identify yourself instead of your name, what would you write? Would you fill in your political party, your faith, your ethnicity, culture, education, job, income or some other identifier?
What if the only people at the party who talked to you and learned your name were the ones who had slapped the same labels on their chest, because those labels were what prequalified you to be a potential friend. Would you feel understood?
When I read about current events and peruse sentiments expressed on social media, it’s clear that this year our kids, our community and our country need us to look beyond those labels. It’s time to listen, get to know and attempt to understand the perspective of someone who looks different, acts differently or believes something different.
I have a trivial memory to illustrate why. My family and I were driving home from the lake one summer. There were seven cars in front of us, following a big truck pulling a big boat. I have a lead foot so I was irritated. I made a few under-the-breath comments about the jerk in the truck who was holding up the line of traffic, making several assumptions about him. He was selfish, arrogant and passive-aggressive.
But when the road widened with a passing lane and I pulled next to the truck, I got a surprise. I discovered I’d been disparaging a good friend.
“Oh! He must not have realized he had a line of cars behind him,” I said as I smiled and waved wildly, my irritation instantly gone. I knew he wasn’t passive-aggressive, arrogant or selfish.
We tend to give the people we know the benefit of the doubt, a benefit I think we’d all like to receive, whether from friends or strangers.
This type of situation is everywhere. When you’ve spent the time to learn someone’s name and get to know them, you assume good will. You empathize. Even if you don’t agree on everything.
I still thought my friend should have pulled to the side of the road. He was pulling a big boat. But when I teased him about holding up traffic, I wasn’t surprised to learn he hadn’t noticed the seven cars behind him. He was sheepish and apologetic.
Road rage, political rage and religious rage could be prevented, I believe, if we have the ability to assume good will and find our commonalities. But we need to look for a friend rather than a foe.
That’s why I think it’s so important to get to know people who don’t look like you, act like you or believe like you. You can’t understand or empathize with someone if you only know them by their label and not their name. But if you learn someone’s name and look for what you have in common, you can build a friendship or at least some understanding.
As a journalist I’ve had the privilege of learning a lot of names and listening to a lot of stories. It’s opened my eyes to how much we share as people, no matter how different we seem at first glance.
It often amazes me the deeply personal things people will tell me in 30 minutes or an hour. I suspect it’s because most people rarely have a stranger listen to them with the intent to understand. Instead, people are accustomed to interruptions as people interject their own stories or, worse, rebuttals aimed to persuade or prove wrong.
You don’t have to change who you are or what you believe to listen well and look for common ground. If you look, you’ll find it. Maybe it’s a hobby or a similar memory, the way they love their kid or enjoy their food. Maybe it’s as simple as wearing the same shoes.
And if you look for one, you might find a friend.
Jill Barville writes twice a month about families, life and everything else. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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