How to Be Friendly in a Divisive World (and Why)

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.

—Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey

It’s so hard to be nice these days.

And why would I want to be? People seem to be looking out for only themselves, and they’re nasty about it. Common courtesy seems to be rapidly disappearing from our interactions, and disagreements seem to quickly devolve into personal attacks. It’s us and them, and there can be no civility if we happen to be on the wrong side.

How can we be friendly in such an environment—and why would we want to be? The answer is both simple and complicated. We can always be friendly. If you’re a friendly person, you can (and should) continue to be friendly, even when it seems the world’s just not a friendly place. If you’re not a friendly person, you should try it out: It’s a pleasant way to live your life.

Maybe the harder question is why would you want to be friendly? Why would I want to be friendly to a group of people whose worldview is off kilter and who are so unfriendly to me? The answer to this one is a bit more complicated, but ultimately, the answer is because that is the only way we (society) will move beyond the divisiveness and begin to act civilized again. It’s the only way to turn the corner.

Being friendly is pleasant

One of the best reasons to be friendly is a selfish one: It makes you feel good. It takes a lot of energy and stamina to be confrontational and grumpy. Friendliness is easy—once you get good at it.

It’s also good for your health. If your friendliness is genuine, it comes with a host of benefits: It lowers stress, allows for a deeper sense of relaxation, and increases your focus (you’re not distracted by obsessing over the perceived wrongs of others). Because friendliness is directly tied to inner peace and serenity, it is natural to work toward these with mindfulness practices, which also have a host of other benefits.

Finally, one of the most significant connections related to friendliness is increased happiness. When you’re friendly, you make others happy, and that happiness is contagious. There’s significant evidence that shows a neurological link between generosity (a significant aspect of friendliness) and happiness.

Being friendly is effective

Isn’t it more important to get things done—to be effective—than to be nice?
Well, who would you rather do something for: someone you like and have a chemistry with, or someone trying to get things done? If you come across as always having an angle—always looking for something in return for your interaction—people will be much more wary and less likely to trust you or want to do things for you. If you’re friendly, it’s a win-win. You get the benefits of friendliness discussed above, and you achieve what you want to achieve.

One of my favorite hobbies is listening to old-time radio shows, and one of my favorites is The Six Shooter with Jimmy Stewart (more Jimmy Stewart, but what better ambassador for friendliness?). Although his character, Britt Ponset, is a gunslinger, he is invariably polite and pleasant to people, and rather than confronting people who he disagrees with, he has a conversation during which he listens with an open mind, and he asks questions when he’s not understanding someone. It allows the person he’s talking to examine their own position without feeling belittled (although Ponset is ready to use his gray steel and rainbow mother-of-pearl revolver if need be).

Being friendly is almost always more effective than being confrontational—only be ready to “shoot” if there’s no other choice. Friendliness forms the foundation of civility, a fundamental building block of a healthy, functional society, but a rapidly diminishing quality in people.

When we have friendliness in our hearts, we will be better able to see the friendliness in others, and it will continue to build. Start by finding the friendliness in your own heart.

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