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Feeling Awkward? Don’t give up.

Feeling Awkward? Don’t give up.

Have you ever avoided talking to someone who was different from you because you thought it would be awkward or uncomfortable?

If so, you’re not alone. People often expect such interactions to go poorly. Thinking about interacting with someone who is different from us can make us feel anxious and stressed, so we often do what we can to avoid it.

The same differences between people that can lead to anxiety and avoidance were what initially drew me to the field of psychology. As a kid, I was fascinated by what makes us think and act the way we do. Everyone has their own story—their own genetic makeup and life events that have made them who they are. I wanted to learn how these different factors affect the way we see the world.

As I got older, though, I began to see the negative side of differences: people use differences to drive wedges. We use them as a way to separate “them” from “us,” often in ways that unfairly benefit “us” at the cost of “them.”

As I began to see how pervasive these “ingroup” and “outgroup” attitudes are, I realized I didn’t want to just study why people do the things they do; I wanted to explore how we can do things better. So, I went to graduate school to study moral psychology and ethics, focusing on one main question: How can we all learn to get along?

What I’ve learned is that the very thing people often avoid—interacting with those who are different from us—is precisely how we bridge divides and improve intergroup relationships. Decades of research has shown that interacting with someone who is not a member of your own group is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice and increase empathy towards others. Personally knowing someone in a particular group is associated with less bias and warmer feelings towards that group as a whole. When we avoid people who are different from us, we miss opportunities to challenge our stereotypes and negative expectations.

Changing Our Expectations

So, how can we get ourselves to step outside our comfort zone and engage with people who are different from us?

We can start by working on changing our expectations of such interactions. Normally, when we encounter someone who is different from us, our default is to focus our attention on our differences. This leads us to form overly negative expectations about the encounter.

Researchers have found that focusing on our similarities with others can improve our expectations. We can see this in a study on intergroup interaction by psychologists Robyn Mallett, Timothy Wilson, and Daniel Gilbert. They found that when they instructed white participants to focus on what they had in common with their black partner in the study, they had more positive expectations of the interaction than those who focused on their differences. Not only were their expectations more positive, they were also more accurate: they expected the interaction to go fairly well and it did. The participants who were instructed to focus on their differences expected the interaction to be significantly more negative than the interaction actually was.

Long-term Benefits of Inter-group Interaction

Moreover, there is a positive cycle with intergroup interaction. The more we interact with people who are different from us, the better our interactions will go. These positive experiences can, in turn, lead us to have better expectations of future intergroup contact, making us more likely to engage in such interactions in the future.

After examining hundreds of empirical studies on intergroup interaction, psychologists Cara MacInnis and Elizabeth Page-Gould argue that there appears to be a contact threshold where intergroup interactions go from being costly to being beneficial. Intergroup interactions can initially cause people to feel anxious, but once they have had enough intergroup contact, their subsequent interactions are likely to be positive.

So even if you find yourself initially feeling anxious when encountering someone who is different from you, try to stick it out. If we continually focus on what we have in common with others rather than on what separates us, this can help us develop more positive attitudes and empathy for others, reducing the divide between “us” and “them” and opening our ears to listen to them. It might be hard in the beginning, but it will be worth it in the end.

This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Jen Zamzow has a Ph.D. in philosophy and cognitive science from the University of Arizona and teaches ethics for Concordia University Irvine and UCLA. She writes about faith and doubt, meaning, morality, and motherhood at jenzamzow.com.

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