Take a look at your close friends, and chances are, you’ll find that many are similar to you in a number of ways, from race to age to class to sexual orientation.
In their oft-cited 2001 paper “Birds Of A Feather: Homophily in Social Networks,” sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and James M. Cook discussed our tendency to surround ourselves with people like us.
“Similarity breeds connection … the result is that people’s personal networks are homogeneous with regard to many sociodemographic, behavioral, and intrapersonal characteristics,” the authors wrote.
Homophily — the theory that similar individuals are more likely to interact and form bonds than dissimilar individuals — “limits people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience,” the sociologists said.
A 2013 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that for the average white American, about 91% of their friends were white, 1% were Black, 1% were Latino, 1% were Asian, 1% were multiracial, 1% were another race and 3% were of unknown race. Three in four white people had no nonwhite friends at all.
For the average Black American, 83% of their friends were Black, 8% were white, 3% were multiracial, 2% were Latino, 1% were another race, 4% were of unknown race and 0% were Asian.
“When we encounter people who are different from us, we may feel unsure about how to act, or about how we or our intentions will be perceived, and that can make us feel uncomfortable.”
– Linda Tropp, professor of social psychology at UMass Amherst
So, why are we inclined to befriend those similar to us? As humans, the familiar makes us feel safe and secure, while differences can make us feel threatened or insecure, said Linda Tropp, professor of social psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“When we encounter people who are different from us, we may feel unsure about how to act, or about how we or our intentions will be perceived, and that can make us feel uncomfortable,” she told HuffPost. “As a result, we may try to avoid interactions with people who are different from us, so that we can feel more secure and comfortable.”
Structural factors — like the way schools and neighborhoods are often segregated along racial, ethnic and class lines — also contribute to similarity within our social circles, said Wellesley College associate professor of psychology Angela Bahns.
Being alike in these ways can make it easier to form friendships, at least at first. “But relying on them may leave us with a social group that lacks meaningful diversity,” said Michael Medina, a postdoctoral scholar and member of the Peer Relations Lab at the University of California, Davis.
Diversifying your social circle to include people of different backgrounds, identities or life experiences can be transformative, not only on a personal level but on a societal one.
“[Diverse friendships] can expand our worldview, opening us up to new viewpoints and helping break down unconscious biases,” said Medina, who studies racial and ethnic identity. “Over time, people with a diverse circle of friends tend to feel more confident and comfortable around other groups, be more creative problem-solvers and develop a deeper understanding of themselves and others.”
Indeed, genuine cross-group relationships have the power to build empathy that ultimately effects change in our communities and beyond.
“We can chip away at the racism and other prejudices that lie in our own hearts, whether or not we’re aware of them, by engaging with people who are different from us,” journalist Amanda Abrams wrote for Yes! magazine. “We can rally around policies that might not affect us personally if we know people who might benefit.”
How To Broaden Your Social Circle
Perhaps you want to make friends outside of your homogenous bubble but aren’t sure how to go about it. To that end, here’s experts’ advice to help you connect with new people in thoughtful, genuine ways.
Take some time to reflect first.
“Diverse friendships have wonderful benefits, but they may require us to confront our own uncomfortable or unconscious assumptions about other groups,” Medina said. “If we want to expand our social networks, we need to reflect on why they currently look the way they do and be intentional about making a change.”
Consider, too, the life choices you’ve made — consciously or not — that affect the people you come in contact with on a regular basis, from what neighborhood you live in to where you send your kids to school or day care.
“If we want to expand our social networks, we need to reflect on why they currently look the way they do and be intentional about making a change.”
– Michael Medina, postdoctoral scholar and member of the U.C. Davis Peer Relations Lab
When looking to expand your circle, be sure to approach that goal from a place of authenticity. It’s OK — necessary even — to intentionally branch out in order to meet different kinds of people. But from there, allow new relationships to develop organically over time, rather than forcing them, which may just make the other person feel tokenized.
“It should be mutually beneficial, not sucking or trying to pull from the [other] person as a resource,” University of Michigan professor Riana Elyse Anderson previously told HuffPost.
Stop thinking of people different from you as “other.”
In spite of differences in your backgrounds, identities or life experiences, remember that you probably have things in common, too. Maybe it’s a favorite TV show, a cause you’re both passionate about or an obsession with true crime books.
“Whether it’s their age, race, or personality, you must remind yourself that you all might share more than you know,” said friendship coach Danielle Bayard Jackson. “Then, remember to bring your full self to the table. You don’t have to change the way you talk or behave to adapt to what you think this other person might appreciate. It’s all about finding and nurturing strong bonds with others — and that just might happen in the unlikeliest of places.”
Change up where and how you spend your time.
Want to interact with new people? You may need to frequent new places.
“If you enjoy yoga, can you consider going to a class in a different neighborhood?” Bayard Jackson said. “If you enjoy museums, can you go on a day and time that’s different than you’d normally go?”
This may be more of a challenge in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. In the meantime, you can explore safer outdoor activities or sign up for virtual classes.
“Join online groups, book clubs or other organizations that encourage meaningful conversations,” Medina said. “Get to know the friends of your friends. Don’t assume you are alone in this — perhaps now more than ever, other people are looking for social connection, too.”
Be willing to make the first move.
Naturally, you’ll continue to gravitate toward people like you and the company you already keep. Instead, make a conscious effort to fight that urge. Be willing to put yourself out there and move outside of your comfort zone.
“After a Zoom work call, can you send a follow-up email to someone who doesn’t seem like your ‘friend type’ to say something like, ‘Hey, thanks for asking that question during today’s meeting. I was wondering the same thing but was too nervous to bring it up, so thanks for having the courage to do it!’” Bayard Jackson suggested. “This opens the door to invite new people into your life and explore the possibilities of friendship. But it starts with adjusting your filters.”
And you don’t need to overthink your introduction, either. After the racial justice protests last summer, several white people asked Bayard Jackson for tips on how they could make more Black friends. Her advice was straightforward: “I told them, ’There’s a secret phrase that works every time. Walk up to them and say, ‘Hi.’”
Think of building these new relationships like strengthening a muscle.
When you first start lifting weights, you might feel weak or self-conscious. With practice, you gradually get stronger and more confident in your abilities.
“We also know that exercising a muscle only once isn’t enough ― we need to keep working that muscle to yield the benefits we seek,” Tropp said. “Developing meaningful relationships across group boundaries works a lot the same way ― we need repeated and sustained opportunities for interaction, where we can meaningfully engage with, listen to, and learn from people who are different from us.”