Friday, October 14, 2011

Social Circles

If you're an adult, I want you to think for a moment about your childhood; if you're a kid or teen, I want you to think a moment about your experience growing up and in the present day.

Ask yourself: who were/are my friends? Where did/do they come from?

As in--did they all go to the same school as you? Perhaps take one or more of the same classes with you? Hang out with your friends?

I'm guessing that most of them were, in some way or another, in your "social circle." My sister, Adrianna, is in high school. A lot of her friends are "Questies" (a reference to the "Quest" program for gifted students back in junior high). Her social circle, if I'm not much mistaken, mainly includes friends she's made in orchestra, Japanese class, and through mutual friends. She has 745 friends on Facebook; most of them go to her high school.

I have slightly more friends on Facebook (789). But of those friends, the overwhelming majority aren't local. I have friends from England to China, the United Arab Emirates to Indonesia, Mexico, Canada, etc. Some I've met at various conferences, others through blogs or shared advocacy groups (for instance, a lot of my friends are involved in education reform efforts).

If you think about how people make conversation, it's often by finding commonalities--the same hometown, the same favorite sports team, the same class or teacher or language studied. But I wonder: if most of your friends live within a fifty-mile radius, what does that say about you and your ability to connect with people, no matter how different they may seem?

When I think about it, many of the most awesome people I know are far-flung across the nation or the world. TEDxRedmond's speakers live in all corners of the US. Recently I caught up with Brigitte Berman(who spoke at TEDxRedmond last year about bullying) when I was in Boston. When I head to California for another TEDx event I'll be seeing Alec Loorz (environmental advocacy) and Jason O'Neill (entrepreneurship).

And my friends Line and Boushra Dalile (two sisters who are champion golfers, TEDxAjman speakers, and excellent writers) are from the United Arab Emirates; I had the chance to meet them in person when I went to Dubai earlier this year.

I've only met Brigitte twice, and Alec and Jason, Line and Boushra once each. I don't see them in the hallways every day at school, I don't say hi to them at the local library, I can't call them up to hang out or party. :) But I can remember having amazing conversations with them all--whether what we had in common was a conference, a goal, or a love for writing. 

Being able to connect with people regardless of "social circle"--transcending the usual measures we use to evaluate if someone is "like us"--is an invaluable skill. Think of how diplomats and businesspeople and the chatty person next to you on the plane do it. I found my own skills tested when I went to Sri Lanka as part of a field visit with the World Food Programme--an amazing organization which I'm proud to work with (you can see my blog post I wrote about that trip here). Visiting their school, I was more than a little nervous. What could I say to these kids, whose experiences seemed literally a world away? Tarp-roofed shacks that could be swept away by floods in the next rainy season. Kitchens without electricity or even running water. School lunch being a lifeline, not an object of complaint.

But despite their environment, so removed from the affluence I see in my home of Redmond, and the necessary trickiness of interpretation, there were still things to talk about. I tried teaching a bit of English, and simultaneously tried my best to comprehend Tamil. (I definitely failed). When I visited a maternity center, a joint program of the WFP and the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health, I sampled homemade foods from the new mothers in attendance. Appropriately for a field visit with the World Food Programme, conversation usually began with food--how school lunches were helping kids, etc. You see, when you're seeking ways to connect with people, you realize that commonalities may be right in front of you. On this trip, it was something basic: food. We all eat (though, as I saw firsthand, some obviously more than others).

The skill of being able to move between one "circle" to the next, with grace and fluidity, is important--not letting ourselves be defined by one term or one group or one organization/school--"Redmond High School" "Harvard" "Microsoft" "Republican" "Democrat" "black" "white" "nerds" "jocks" "geeks" "hipsters" "Questies." Sure, you might say that you have friends within a fifty-mile radius because really, it's hard to make friends outside of school or church or neighborhood. But even within the organizations you belong to--are you sticking inside just one social circle? Don't let commonalities trap you in a fishbowl.

So--try introducing your school friends to your music friends to your lacrosse friends to your education-reform-on-Facebook friends. Let those circles overlap. :)

And perhaps, at some point, we can forget about having firmly set social circles altogether. Because all that a circle does is keep some people in and all the rest of us, out.


  1. It's amazing that we have the possibility to have friends all over the world... I made a lot of spanish and argentinian friends because we were on the same writing forum -I'm from Uruguay-, and althoug we may never see each other, the things we have in common, and the friendship we made, it's still strong.

    I liked your post, regards


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  3. Andrew Kewley2:06 AM

    Call me old fashioned, but I regard friends as those whom I love (in a non-romantic way).

    So I wouldn't consider hundreds of Facebook 'friends' to be the same as the friends you spend time with on a daily/weekly basis.

    Nonetheless, the importance of forming a wide variety of social connections is an important insight.

    Many conflicts are created by creating exclusionary groupings and so the way towards peace is by erasing the boundaries and increasing our connectedness to others. (and not to forget the environment)

    I truly believe that we should listen and take to heart as many voices as we can. This is also the key to both a more effective democracy and making a better world.

    The problem is that we tend to only listen to voices that are either most like ourselves, or the voices that are most visible.

    But these are only a minority of the voices out there.

    Some of the voices that most need to be heard aren't going to be the voices you see on the internet, or voices you meet at conferences. These voices have been silenced in some way - stigma, disability (which is an extremely diverse group), economic disadvantage etc.