Tag Archives | human nature

The Vote is in: Strangers Often Nicer than Friends

Photo courtesy of Susan Babbitt

I’ve been totally awestruck by the plethora of good samaritans who have been helping people recover after the destruction of Hurricane Sandy. I became more and more interested in the situation as rescue teams from all over the country came to our aid. As I sat at a red light one day, my jaw dropped as a fleet of Mississippi patrol cars and rescue vehicles went past, speeding north, where the damage was the worst.

On top of what I read and witnessed about those highly damaged areas - people continued to ask if I needed any help, asking what they could do if my home or family had suffered any damage.

Thankfully, although we were right on the edge of disaster, my town was barely affected by the storm at all.  I did what I could to help those who were greatly affected by Sandy, but continued to be genuinely astonished by the simply Herculean efforts put forth by some of the volunteers.

One thing that seemed noteworthy to me was that a huge percentage of the people reaching out to me - offering help, prayers, good will?  Were complete strangers.

Now – don’t misunderstand me here – friends and family checked in too – but I was literally inundated with a huge number of concerned people that I simply didn’t know.  I found that interesting and confusing, and I wanted to learn more about this – the kindness of strangers.

Most of us have heard a friend complain that her spouse or significant other takes her for granted, ignores her, or pays more quality attention to other people.  On a related note – many times people talk so poorly about a family member that you’d think they were discussing a mortal enemy. Avoiding phone calls, skipping out on family events, screaming matches, name calling and blatant disrespect are all common behaviors among some families. What amazes me is that these very same people are more than willing to go above and beyond for people they don’t (or barely) know.

The main psychology working behind this behavior is the belief that family members and spouses can’t reject us, no matter how poorly we treat them. Of course, this isn’t necessarily true – especially when it comes to married couples, as evidenced by the divorce rate.

But what else is at play here?  During my research on the topic, I learned that the ‘kindness of strangers’ phenomenon occurs more often in people who were taught as young children to treat strangers with a high level of respect.  These same people also often view their spouse or significant other as a virtual extension of themselves – and those with low self-esteem consequently end up treating their spouses as poorly as they treat themselves.

There’s also something known as the ‘closeness-communication bias’. Psychologists have found that, although partners usually think they are communicating their wants and needs well - the truth is that many couples are interacting at or below the level of people who have just met.  This communication breakdown occurs when people spend so much time together that they stop taking the perspective of “the other person.” When couples and close friends talk, they often have an unfortunate ‘illusion of insight’ which leads them to leave out critical details that would not get left out while talking to a stranger. In short: we end up explaining ourselves and behaving ourselves better with strangers, because we make so many assumptions with those closest to us.

There is so much to be gained from the kindness of strangers. I’ve been completely fascinated to learn what motivates us to help people we barely know more readily than we’ll help our own family members and our husbands and wives. While the kindness of strangers has literally helped millions of people who were left devastated by Hurricane Sandy, what we can learn from their kindness and their behaviors can even help us in our close relationships. Since we’re all working to be as happy as possible, naturally we want our loved ones to reap the benefits of our happiness, too.

And maybe the best way to do that –  is to treat them like complete strangers.

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How to Take Criticism Without Becoming a Doormat

Photo courtesy of fauxto_digit

One thing I’ve learned from watching a lot of reality TV is that when people say things like “you should learn to take criticism, get a thicker skin,” what they really mean is they want to continue to walk all over you and they don’t want you to say anything back. I’ve come across this sort of behavior a lot recently – people speaking very bluntly about their opinion of you, only to accuse you of being uptight when you decide to bite back. So where is the balance? Isn’t there a way to still take criticism without becoming a doormat?

For me, a big part of taking criticism is about the other person’s motivations. What are they trying to gain by criticizing you, and how do they react when you contest that criticism? There are some people who simply enjoy conflict, or can’t help but give their “honest” opinion when it isn’t asked for. I’ve also come across people whose second nature is to try to dominate a conversation, regardless of the topic. They’ll rant about their views at length, only to shoot you down when you try to add your own opinion into the mix. This kind of conversational pressuring typically comes from the same people who tell you to “get a thicker skin” or, my personal favorite, “learn to take a joke” when their telling you how it is rubs you the wrong way.

On the other hand, criticism can be an excellent tool for self-improvement. I don’t think I’d be the person I am today if I hadn’t received a whirlwind of criticism from my closest friends and family. As long as it remains constructive, getting the odd piece of criticism from somebody who knows your faults and habits well can be invaluable to personal growth. It can help you to pay attention to the finer details you’d previously overlooked, or learn to stop repeating the same mistakes over and over.

There is definitely a fine line between taking criticism and letting others walk all over you. Whether you agree with the points being made against you or not, it makes sense to listen to what the other person has to say before flat out disagreeing with them (as is in our nature). Don’t be a doormat, sure, but learn to take criticism for what it is: a useful tool for bettering yourself.

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