Friendships are powerful. Period.

Illustrator: Nate Williams

Friendships give you a sense of self and direction, make you feel less lonely in life, and provide a security of support through your good and bad times. The list of benefits can go on. If you extend yourself to only one kind of friendship, you may be restricting yourself from personal growth. You may also be missing out on bonds that go above and beyond boundaries.  With that said, building relationships with people who are “different” from you creates a world of diversity and not surprisingly, creates the path to be an agent of change in a world that is confused with divisiveness and fear.

Some of my most meaningful friendships come from individuals who do not share the same faith, ethnicity, or race. These friendships have shaped my mindset to really think outside the box and witness the creation of powerful forces. These friendships have banded us together to effect social change; to promote love, justice and equality.   The personal relationship we have with each other forms a solid base for change in the world;  which we need now more than ever.

By now, you probably know the importance of working with people with different racial, ethnic, language, and economic groups. We deal with diverse groups every day of our lives. Often the people we meet and work with, we know very little about.  How do we penetrate through the surface level and get to the point of establishing a trusting relationship? Simply by providing a sturdy and caring relationship based on trust, understanding and having a shared goal.

Once you have made the conscious decision to make friends with people from different cultural backgrounds, these tips can be used to foster that relationship.

Explore your biases about people from other cultures

You received a lot of information from T.V., from listening to adults talk and from your own culture in general when you were a child. Really reflect on the stereotypes and misinformation you have acquired. You are not a bad person to have these stereotypes and biases. As children, you did not ask for this information, it was just handed to you (directly or indirectly).  Examine these thoughts that come to mind with other friends and see where your conversation goes. It usually goes in a positive, uplifting direction.

Questions to ask yourself: How did your parents feel about different ethnic, racial, or religious groups? Were your parents’ friends with people from different ethnic groups? Do you shy away from certain people? Why?

Be brave to ask questions about customs, culture & views

Being a Muslim, Arab-American, I know that I want to be asked questions about myself, my culture and views. Sound silly? Maybe just a little, but I think every one of us would enjoy sharing a little of ourselves to others. People would rather answer questions about themselves than have assumptions based on stereotypes/misinformation streamed through the media dictate who they are. Try it. You will be pleasantly surprised what a sincere question can lead to.

Read about other people’s culture and history

Reading about other’s people’s culture and history will not make you an expert in that field.  What it will do is show that you care enough to take the time and energy to learn more about their culture and history.  It will also open doors to ask meaningful questions about the background information you have just read.

Listen to people tell their stories

Everyone has a story to tell. When you listen to someone’s life story, you build a deep connection with that person that roots itself with empathy and understanding.  This serves true especially to those who come up against discrimination; that they are a real person with real feelings and experiences.  Take the time to actively listen and hear the triumphs, and hurt that they share with you.

Risk making mistakes

No one is perfect and we all make mistakes. If you offend a person, or make an insensitive statement, ask them what did you say or do. If you did offend a person, apologize for that statement and move on. In general, people are forgiving; don’t be so hard on yourself. The best route of action is to learn from the mistake, forgive yourself and continue forming your relationship. By showing you care about them and their feelings will strengthen your relationship. Caring about people makes your relationship real.

Be an ally

Being a bystander and staying neutral in times of need does not foster a supportive and secure relationship. Standing up to injustices, and showing you are willing to take risks on their behalf is one of the strongest ways to build relationships. By being an ally, you learn about their struggles and also educate yourself about the issues that they face.

When you build a trusting relationship with another human being, the power you hold is limitless! It’s a win-win situation. You can examine yourself, learn about other customs, culture and views, listen to stories, take risks and most importantly, be a friend to someone who may feel alone in a world of chaos.  Learning about others does not take away from who you are or what you believe in.  In fact, it may add value to your life experiences.  So, next time when you feel intrigued about someone that is different than you, go ahead and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Open your heart and mind to unfolding a story that is waiting to be heard. Who knows, it can lead to a start of a beautiful friendship.