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Seeking Similarities Over Differences

Sometimes all it takes to "fit in" is a change of perspective.

In highly individualistic cultures, like the United States, individuals are taught to laud their distinctions. Indeed, all too often the first question out of our mouths at a party – or even a coffee shop – is, “What do you do?”

From our earliest days in school, all the way through college and on to retirement, we are essentially taught to be competitive and how to position ourselves to succeed. We work hard on trying to craft that thing – you know the one – that makes us who we are. The one that makes us unique.

The one that makes us special.

We are also taught how to make distinctions. Within the first 15 seconds of meeting someone we’ve automatically got them sorted, usually on the basis of characteristics over which they have no control – not the least of which are height, sex, race, and age.

I’ll be the first to admit that I do this all the time. In fact, our ability to do this, and to do it quickly, is perhaps the most important cognitive survival mechanism we have. Can you imagine how overwhelming the social world would be if we couldn’t do this?

On the one hand, it’s brilliant. It allows us to go into a new situation, meet new people, and immediately sort them into groups of who are attractive or unattractive, safe or not safe, interesting or not. But it also has the potential to disenfranchise people on the basis of a split second, and often unconscious, decision.

Just last week I was invited to a gathering of women. I was apprehensive, because on many dimensions they are not like me. As I was packing my suitcase and muttering about not fitting in, etc., my husband invited me to look for the similarities instead of looking for the differences.

“Like what?” I pushed back, feeling stubborn.

“Like the fact that you’re all women,” he suggested. “Or, maybe try to find someone who has the same eye shape as you.”

I think I rolled my eyes and snorted and went to grab a dress out of the closet.

Two nights later, I found myself deep in conversation with a woman who in many ways was nothing like me. In fact, when she first walked in, I thought, “Wow, she’s this, that, and the other.” Although it could have been just an observation, it was actually a comparison – it was really, “She’s this, that, and the other, and I am not.” As a result I avoided her. It was only by chance we ended up in conversation with one another to begin with.

Once there, however, we totally connected.

I forgot that she was about four inches taller and twenty pounds lighter than me. I forgot that she out-earns me by a factor of approximately six. I forgot that she was in a designer jacket and I, well, wasn’t.

Then an amazing thing happened, she leaned forward and then motioned for someone else to join us.

“Look,” she said in quiet awe, “Kathryn and I have the exact same eye shape.”

I literally almost fell out of the chair.

According to Ram Dass, one of the great spiritual thinkers of our time, the biggest barrier to our ability to connect – either interpersonally or with the divine – is our collective tendency to make distinctions. Connection is the first step toward relating. It is the necessary, critical, essential skill.

The next time you find yourself in a new situation, on a date, or with a new group of people, seek the similarities. Sure, sort for safety and all of that, but once you’re confident that you’re in a secure environment, look for the aspects, the experiences, and the qualities that make you similar to others or to that particular person.

And if you can’t find the big things, start small.

Because remember that tall, willowy woman with eyes like mine? Within a matter of days, she became one of my new best friends. And we have way more in common than I would have ever, ever imagined on first glance.

More from Kathryn J Lively Ph.D.
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