Last week I wrote about my life as an atheist with my devout Catholic husband. I received some really interesting feedback from fellow Expaters and it struck me how lucky I am to be surrounded by such a diverse network of people.
Living abroad puts us among groups we probably wouldn’t mix with ‘back home’.
Now research by the Director of the Oxford Centre for the Study of Intergroup Conflict shows that having friends who belong to other groups can be good for us.
In a BBC report Professor Miles Hewstone writes that, ‘It can reduce anxiety about mixing with people who aren’t “just like us” and dispel negative expectations of interactions with them’.
He goes on to explain, ‘This, in turn, can lead to more positive attitudes towards other groups in general. It enables and encourages us to take the perspective of their members and to feel more empathy towards them.’
The knock on effect is greater than you might first imagine. ‘A surprising effect is that contact with one group of “others”, for example gay people, can change our attitudes towards other groups, for example people with more or less money than us,’ he writes.
The more we mingle with other groups the less prejudiced we become.
Of course as human beings we naturally seek out our like minded counterparts. We feel more comfortable with those who share the same opinions as us.
I know I’m one of them.
As much as I’d like to think my expat network of friends is hugely diverse, the majority of my buddies are university educated, well travelled and with high disposable incomes.
Yes, I have Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and atheist friends. Yes, I have as many vegan plan based eaters in my address book as I do steak lovers. Yes, my friends come in every shade of colour and from every corner of the world.
But I still wonder how diverse my network is.
You should too.
If we don’t make a conscious effort, it’s natural for us to seek out and remember only the information that confirms our views, while discarding anything that disagrees with our opinions.
After the 2016 Brexit referendum one friend openly acknowledged that all her friends voted, like her, to remain, and this worried her. She was totally disconnected from nearly 52% of the population.
If you’re a Brit, ask yourself how many of your friends who voted the other way in the referendum.
If you’re deeply religious, ask yourself how many atheist friends you have. If you’re atheist ask yourself how many devout friends you have.
If you’re university educated, check among your Facebook friends how many went straight into employment.
Do you have gay, bi and straight friends?
I’m not suggesting we rich expats go out and ‘hug a hoodie’. That we find a token friend from another race.
I’m just conscious of the need to recognise the limits of our friendship circles and embrace the opportunities that expat life gives us to better understand the world around us.
I disagree with my Syrian’s friend take on the war in her country, but I understand where she’s coming from. I’m not a fan of Putin per se, but I think it’s wrong to just dismiss my relations in Russia who admire him. I don’t share the same opinions on the Arab Israeli crisis as many of my friends, but I understand that they were brought up in very different circumstances to my own.
Commenting on my post about marriage to a Catholic as an atheist, my sister in law sent me a video about atheists who converted. My sister is a wonderfully direct Spaniard and she can take honest feedback. I was indeed brutally honest.
I hated it.
To me personally, it felt like an echo chamber of Catholic propaganda.
But I am glad that she shared the video and her personal opinions with me. That she opened me to another view point. That I count her as a close friend.
We might not agree with everyone we meet along our expat paths but living abroad, making new connections and friends from different walks of life can only be a good thing.
As professor Hewstone puts it, ‘it can see us live together more positively and peaceably in an increasingly diverse world’.