The Benefit of Diverse Friendships

When it comes to the quality of your friendships, does diversity matter? In this next post for my year-long series, New Year; New Types of Friends, I explain the benefits of having a wide variety of people among your circle of friends. Diversity helps deepen your friendships so you can enjoy deeper, authentic, and impactful conversations. It also helps you gain different perspectives that help you better support your friends and family. 

What Do I Mean by Diversity?

As you pondered the topic of diversity among your friends, did your immediate thoughts go to racial diversity? But do you have friends with different religious beliefs? What about different socioeconomic or educational statuses?  How about friends with a different gender or sexual orientation? Nationality or ethnicity? How about friends with an older man or a young buck? Would you ever consider having friends of differing political parties?

It’s not unrealistic to assume that most people prefer friendships with people similar to them. In fact, much research highlights that fact. Some people even prefer diversity within their circle of friends. However, there is relatively little research on friendship diversity as it most often focuses on race while ignoring other groups. But all of these differences shape our view of the world, our perspective, and our approach to living our best life.  Understanding diversity helps us become more godly men.

We Are Too Similar Racially

A Washington Post article stated America is more diverse than ever. But while the U.S. is on track to be a majority-minority nation by 2044, census data shows we are still segregated in our neighborhoods. A 2014 study by the Public Religion Research Institute showed three-quarters of white people don’t have any non-white friends. For instance, for every 100 friends, a white American had, 91 were white with only 1 Black friend, 1 Asian friend, 1 Latino friend, 1 mixed-race friend, and 3 friends of unknown race. By comparison, the average Black American had 83 Black friends and 8 white friends in this 100-friend scenario. Most of our friends and neighbors look the same as us. 

Interracial friendships are fairly commonplace during our school years. However, children entering adolescence are less likely to maintain cross-racial friendships as they grow older, according to a study led by researchers from New York University. 

If a white child has a friend of color, it’s likely that the friend is a minority in a mostly white community, said Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race, for a HuffPost article titled Why We Need More Close Interracial Friendships (And Why We’re Bad At Them).

So we generally adhere to our geographic segregation and stay socially segregated. Developing cross-racial friendships is more difficult though in adulthood, outside of possibly bonding with a co-worker of a different race. But Tatum says as anti-racism protests broke out in America last year, many white people probably told their Black friends, “I had no idea this kind of stuff was still happening. Why didn’t you tell me?” These conversations should help bridge racial gaps.

Friendships Who Believe Differently

Variety in friendship also includes religious diversity. A study by Interfaith Youth Core found that in US colleges and universities, 94% of students who started college with one to four inter-worldview friendships either maintained friendships at that level or made more. Muslims (79%) reported the highest percentage of affiliation with five or more friends of different religions, followed by Jews (68%), Buddhists (57%), and atheists (55%) are also the most inclined to have religiously diverse friends beginning their first term on campus. The three lowest groups of students with a religiously diverse set of friends are Mormons (28.3 %), Mainline Protestants (42.9 %), and Evangelical Christians (43.1 %). The study concluded that students who started college with a religiously diverse set of friends are most likely to end their first year with more of such friendships too. 

In an article titled, Loving People with Different Religions to Me, Katie Kamas says growing up in the ‘Bible Belt’ of the U.S., she only had one person in her acquaintance that followed a different faith. During her college years, she had a friend who was an atheist with whom she had rich, open conversations about spiritual backgrounds. Those conversations challenged her to take a greater hold of her own beliefs but also richly built friendships. 

Diversity of Age

I’ve written previously about Three Relationships Every Man Needs. Based on the example of the Apostle Paul, your inner circle should include a Timothy, a Barnabas, and also a Paul. Another way of explaining it is everyone needs an apprentice (Timothy), an associate (Barnabas), and a mentor (Paul). This model has a pretty simple meaning but will be very transformative when used properly.

This model is designed to help future generations. Each man can speak the truth in disagreements and provide encouragement during tough times. Most importantly, they provide wisdom to younger guys and renew the purpose of older guys who want to strengthen their legacy.

Diversity of Economic Status

Variety among friendships should also include economic diversity. An article in The Harvard Gazette reported that a “friending bias” affects our upward socio-economic future. Raj Chetty, an economist at Harvard and one of the study’s four principal authors, told The New York Times.“Growing up in a community connected across class lines improves kids’ outcome and gives them a better shot at rising out of poverty,” “It’s not just about exposure,” Chetty said. “It’s not just about admitting a more diverse class at Harvard. It’s about actually getting people to interact at Harvard or in their high school or in their neighborhood.” 

This so-called “friending bias” appears even when both groups are exposed to each other. Chetty found people exhibit less friending bias in churches, faith-based groups, and recreational groups, than in neighborhoods, high schools, and colleges, “You’re much more likely to spend time with people who are more like you than people from a different socioeconomic class,” said Chetty.

The article suggests that churches and other religious organizations are more socioeconomically homogeneous and tend to foster more cross-class interactions than most other social activities. Social integration seems to play a crucial role in minimizing “friending bias.”

Diversity of Different Genders

Some suggest friendships with different genders are also important, especially for children. An article from Society for Personality and Social Psychology says gender-diverse friendships can decrease prejudice and reduce sexism. It also says having one good friend from a different social group is good, and having more is better. But males and females have different expectations about friendship, which increase during adolescence and into adulthood. 

Today, men and women must maintain proper boundaries for their friendships in today’s hypersexualized world.  It’s one reason I wrote that men need to proceed with caution in friendships with the opposite sex in my post Can Men and Women Be Friends? While some people of the opposite sex can maintain legitimate friendships, God’s original design for marriage and sex, makes intimacy among friends –-even friends of the same sex, very difficult at times. 

The intimate friendship of Jonathan and David is one example of where biblical truth about one man’s love for another collides with modern cultural views of same-sex commitment to friendships. But Jesus is our ultimate role model for intimacy. He was the perfect embodiment of love, honesty, and patience. These traits teach us about loving and accepting our brothers and sisters with same-sex attraction.

Diversity of Political Views

One risky, yet beneficial trait of diversity for your friendships is that of political view. Pew Research shows that political polarization is more intense now than at any point in modern history. Nearly 80% of Americans now have “just a few” or no friends at all across the political party aisle. And the animosity goes both ways.

But your friendship group can impact your political views, both good and bad. The article Birds of a feather: how friends shape our political opinions highlights research from Monash Business School in Melbourne, Australia about how friendship affects our political opinions. At times, views become similar and sometimes they diverge. But usually, “friends tended to join the same political association together and then that tended to reinforce their views. However, if the students had completely opposing views, the friendship didn’t change those views.”

A recent short film titled, Purple from the organization Resetting The Table, demonstrates how to confront disagreements by discovering the concerns and experiences that lie behind each other’s political positions. Filmed in rural Wisconsin and Iowa – in a “swing region” within two bordering states with a mixture of “red” (Republican) and “blue” (Democratic) viewpoints, the film presents a rare view into political conversations that uplift and inspire during the heat of passionate political differences.

A friendship between two people with open minds and a lot of patience helps bridge the gap between political differences. They also have to work hard at showing grace and forgiveness. Weighing the pros and cons of that friendship may be the only solution. You may need to take a step back and ask yourself:  Can we “agree to disagree” and not ever talk about politics? Or can we simply take a break from the friendship during this political season? It might be more stressful to be friends with someone across the political divide if you can not extend a ton of grace and patience.

The Power of Diverse Friendships

Diversity literally means “having or being composed of different elements.” 

As the world becomes increasingly global, we will continue to encounter more people not like us. In an earlier post about the friendship between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, I quoted the book, One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love that all human beings are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic makeup. This means just 1/10 of 1% distinguishes our skin color, hair texture, height, and weight.  It means we are of “one blood” despite how we look, act, and believe.

When you surround yourself with people who are different from you, you hear different ideas, thoughts, and perspectives. This challenges each of you to grow intellectually and interpersonally; probably even to the benefit outside your friendships. This does not mean you have to change who you are. Rather, you get to exchange who you are with others while reaping the benefits of their viewpoints. Sure, you may make mistakes but diversity will help you grow if you let it.

Open your mind up to deeper, more meaningful conversations. Gain a better context for other people’s lives. This will help remove any biases you may have before you even realize you have them. Diversity in friendships helps us overcome racism, and differences in religious views. It can close socioeconomic gaps and avoid misunderstandings about gender and sexual identity issues. It may even level our political views.

Once we realize we are of one blood, created by a loving God, we will see we are more in common than we are different. 

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I admit that as a white, cisgender, middle-class American male, I need more diversity among my circle of friends. But adding diversity is not as easy as simply asking people of a different color, ethnicity, or religion to be your friend. It takes some self-reflection and humility about how you have benefited from privilege in your life. It takes avoiding “tokenism,” which is recruiting people to create the impression of social inclusiveness and diversity. The last thing you want is for someone different from you to feel that you are using them. Your desire is a deep, meaningful relationship with them as a person.

In the aforementioned article, Katie Kamas offers some suggestions to help friendships with those of different faiths. I think those also apply to all aspects of friendship diversity.

  1. Get outside of your bubble – Our culture celebrates diversity, but we can still find ourselves living with people like ourselves. It takes a conscious decision to befriend those who come from varying cultures, worldviews, and perspectives to your own. In Acts 17 we find that Paul did not wait for the Athenians to come to him – he searched them out and began conversations. Ask God to highlight ways to meet new people such as through a hobby, social group, or volunteer opportunities.
  1. Seek long-lasting relationships – Openness and trust in relationships are built through time and shared experiences. Such as with my friend in college, we were friends for a few months before we even spoke about the spirituality in our lives. Simply be consistent and seek genuine care for your friends.
  1. Offer prayer and blessing – You may feel awkward about asking your friends from different religions if you can pray for them. But most people welcome prayers and blessings for their lives. Your friends are navigating their own relationships, work, and purposes. Prayer is a significant way to support them. Ask them how you can pray for them, and if they are open, follow through with them.

All told, diversity among your friendships helps deepen your relationships and helps strengthen you as a man of God.

My next post includes more on male-female friendships before I turn the corner for the last month of this series.


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