Turn Strangers into Friends

How can strangers quickly become friends? Or at least avoid being enemies?

On my way back from vacation, I passed through Miami International Airport. It’s an enormous place, so I spent a half hour walking from one terminal to another.

A middle-aged TSA officer was walking in the same direction. I struck up a conversation with him. We had a nice chat before we went our separate ways.

Why? How?

Easy. We had something in common. That’s frequently all it takes.

I saw that he wore a yarmulke, so he was obviously Jewish. I took a chance and spoke to him in Hebrew.

I asked if he was an Israeli. Israel’s airport security is better than ours, so I thought he might be helping TSA improve its procedures.

He wasn’t Israeli but he understood enough Hebrew to know what I had asked. He was actually from Venezuela. We talked about how he and his family had come to America. Nice guy. And I got a chance to practice my Spanish.

Even though we were strangers at first, my question in Hebrew signaled that we were members of the same in-group. In-group members tend to feel friendly and cooperative with each other. So we were able to chat as casual friends even though we didn’t know each other.

Groups are sometimes based in biology, such as race and ethnicity. In his book The Social Conquest of Earth, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson observes that:

“People must have a tribe. It gives them a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world. It makes the environment less disorienting and dangerous.”

But groups can be based on almost any shared trait, as long as it’s known to other group members. Wilson continues:

“Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when experimenters created the groups arbitrarily, then labeled them so the members could identify themselves … prejudice quickly established itself. Whether groups played for pennies or identified themselves as preferring some abstract painter to another, the participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.”

Until recently, “Americans” formed a great big in-group. Whatever our differences, we had that shared identity in common. We wanted to solve our problems together.

I’m not a historian, but I think our sense of shared group identity started to disintegrate when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Since World War II, the Soviet Union had been an external threat to our group’s survival. It encouraged us to set aside our differences and unite against our common enemy.

But now, with no common enemy outside of America, identity politics divides us against each other. We no longer feel enough in common to be members of the same group. We’re also importing millions of people who were never part of our group and who don’t want to be. The inevitable result is as obvious as it is tragic.

What America needs is leadership to re-unite us and re-establish our group identity. But nobody is doing it. Not President Trump. Not Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi. Not the talking heads on cable news. Not Hollywood.

And the hell of it is, it can be done! It’s not rocket science. The resources to do it are available. All it takes is the will.

Please, won’t someone step up to the plate and take a swing? It’s the bottom of the ninth and we’re losing. We can still win. But the team leaders have to lead.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Political Science, Psychology, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Turn Strangers into Friends

  1. Pingback: Recommended reading | Down the Road

  2. Roger Meade says:

    I find your comment about the fall of the Soviet Union very interesting, as it kind of parallels a thought I have had for a long time. I think the demise of the Soviet Union awakened a new “gloves off” attitude in corporations and their dealings with employees, customers, the public and the government, but especially employees. Not that it wasn’t going to happen anyway, but it was like switching to afterburner.

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    • N.S. Palmer says:

      The Soviet Union’s fall also opened up markets around the world. American companies could offshore production to low-wage countries including China, which would previously have been impossible. It vastly increased the supply of labor, pushing down wages in developed countries. It was great for owners and top management of transnational firms, but bad for wage earners in Western countries. Increasing the labor supply and pushing down wages are why corporate America (which isn’t really American anymore) is so relentless in pushing the myth of a labor shortage to import more H1-B workers.

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  3. J P says:

    I am behind on my reading, but found this worth responding to. I remember the “American Group” re-forming after 9/11, but it didn’t last long. The Catholic Group has been weakening as members increasingly identity with politics over faith.

    A lot of people are making a lot of money increasing rifts. Healing them will be an uphill slog.

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    • N.S. Palmer says:

      Most people are followers. The leaders are the ones who need to be reached. I believe that given the will to do so, it would be quite possible. If the leaders stop inciting mass rage and hysteria, the followers will calm down on their own. If the world were to be deprived of a few Antifa terrorists, that would also have a calming effect.

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