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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    • Laurie

      My prayers and well wishes go out to those further up the coast than I who have suffered as a result of the hurricane. I am glad that you and your family made out well. Thank you for highlighting the ‘illusion of insight’ as I believe that I am facing that very thing and needed the assistance there.

      • Adrienne McGuire

        Interesting, and glad I could help. I myself found that piece particularly fascinating too.

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