(I told you that I wrote a post for Daughters of Promise. I am publishing it below, with a few changes suggested by the ladies in the writing group I’m part of. Daughters of Promise is a very nice Anabaptist magazine for girls and ladies, full of wonderful photography and lots of spiritual encouragement, as well as fun articles on things like decorating and cookie baking. This year my sister and I ordered it by mail for our daughters, but you can purchase the online edition as well. Because I’d rather ramble around bloggy-style than pick a subject and enlarge on it, this feels rather prim and easy-answer-ish. But so be it for today.)
They say we write best about what we know, the things we are passionate about. As an Alberta farmer/pastor’s wife, I know chinooks and growing peas and wet mittens and small churches. You might know okra and classical music and decorating with burlap and vacationing in Switzerland.
But one thing we all know is people and relationships. People and their stories draw us in. Whether we’re introverts or extroverts by nature, there’s always more to learn about relating to others and being interested in what makes them who they are.
My parents are models of impartiality and magnanimity. As we were growing up, they pounded into our brains that you NEVER make fun of someone for how they look or what they eat or how they speak. All people were worthy of respect and there were no caste distinctions or levels or partialities in how we related to guests in our home or newcomers to church or the neighbors next door.
Added to that training was the kind of encompassing friendships that being part of a small church and school encouraged. If you were only friends with people your age who liked the things you liked or played the way you liked to play, you were likely friendless. Because maybe there was only one other girl in your grade and maybe you were as different as chalk and cheese. As a youth girl, some of my favorite church friends were married ladies. I distinctly remember feeling so grown up at about age 11 when someone in a crowd of ladies included me in a discussion of whether they’d rather clean the toilet or the tub in a bathroom. It was like a step into womanhood, all wrapped up in one casual little question.
And ALWAYS make people feel welcome, taught Mother. I remember a crying session after church one day because Mom insisted that I go and talk to a visitor who looked close to my age. High-falutin’ or outcast, all people deserved recognition and respect. Somewhere along the line, I learned to overcome fear and make conversation easily.
I don’t know how much training had to do with this and how much of it is personality, but I’ve come to love meeting new people. Sometimes meeting new people is easier than cultivating older or difficult relationships. I have to watch tendency to be friends with many but close to no one.
I think that building relationships with new people, as well as strengthening relationships you already have, could be summed up in two steps:
- Constantly think outward.
- Share yourself.
But since this writing assignment requires a few more words, I’ll add to those principles.
In a social situation, ALWAYS put yourself in another’s shoes. Is she coming into a group where everyone else knows each other and the group assumes she’ll just fit in somehow? Introduce her to the others. Say “This is my friend, Sadie. She’s really good at playing piano.” Include her in the conversation by saying things like “How does your family do it?” or “What’s your opinion?”
Is he a street kid attending your straight-laced church for the first time? Say hi and welcome and whisper that you’ll all be kneeling for prayer in a few minutes and that no one is obligated to put money into the offering plate.
Is she so shy that you ran out of interesting questions for her long ago? Talk about yourself. Share who you are.
Be genuine. Don’t be nice just so people think you’re nice. People quickly see through that façade. Don’t fake it, but practice genuinely caring about others and expressing it. One way of doing this can be giving compliments. Compliments are great icebreakers. I love giving compliments and it’s really quite easy. Just look for something that is unique about the person you’re learning to know and say it.
“I noticed your beautiful alto when you sang behind me in the church this morning.”
“I love your daughter’s French braid! How do you do it so neatly?”
“That color of purple suits you so well. I can’t wear lavender, so I always notice when other people look good in it.”
Sincere compliments work anywhere-in a long line up at the grocery store, for a new girl at the volleyball game, for your elderly friend at church.
Be careful. I am not a private person. Most things in my life I don’t mind sharing with the average person. By a series of hard knocks, some of them recent, I’m learning that not everyone is that way.
There is a fine line between genuine interest in someone’s life and being nosy. For those of us who grew up in conservative Mennonite circles, it’s natural to ask and answer questions with strangers of similar backgrounds because there’s an underlying trust that’s grounded in our similar faith. Your Baptist friend may not feel quite the same about the questions you have for her, much less the lady who just left a women’s shelter and is trying to find a new life in her own apartment. Move slowly in your relationships, feeling for the pace the other person is setting by their responses.
Find common ground. This can be hard, but it’s always helpful. I’ve been delighted to find out that someone I had a hard time relating to likes Philip Yancey’s writing as much as I do. Having children of similar ages always puts you on a level with people that you thought you’d never connect with. Do you both like to cook? Do you have mutual friends?
Don’t make judgments based on first impressions. I did this so badly as an insecure 16 year old attending Bible school in Minnesota for the first time. She’s so pretty, I’m sure she’d never want to be seen with me. He can play volleyball like a pro, so he’s probably conceited. She always hangs out with the Indiana girls, so I’m sure there’s no room for someone from Alberta in her life. My parent’s training mostly won out and I tried to be nice to everyone, but I did have a big dose of snob-of-all-snobs-ism, looking down on people who (I thought) looked down on people.
It’s so funny. I’ve met some of those people that I pegged as ‘elite’ back in the day. We have babies and graying hair and ordinations and teenagers to draw us together. The girl who was just so “in” and unfriendly told me that she thought I was smart and put together, so she was afraid of me. We both laughed with disbelief at our mistaken impressions. What a shame to lose a chance on a good friendship!
Listen well. Pay attention to details. I love it when people bring up something I said, did, or wore a long time ago. They care about me enough to remember, I think. They were interested when I talked. We all know people who don’t have time to do the listening part of a conversation. It’s all about them. I have to catch myself when someone shares an experience and I have a “one-up” on them. Who really cares that I had a funnier experience than the one they’ve just shared? Who really cares that my cold lasted longer than the one they’re battling at present?
Write it if you can’t say it. I express love best through words, but I sometimes get uptight or befuddled and can’t communicate the things I wish to say in person. If you have a person in your life that’s hard to relate to, try writing them a note to say what’s on your heart. I’ve also been delighted to find that a few people who are extremely quiet in person are very good at communicating their feelings and opinions through writing. Send someone a text or a facebook message if you feel like your last attempt at conversation flopped. Better yet, write them a note or letter by hand.
Be hospitable. I was privileged to grow up in a home where visitors were welcomed and cared for. Mom could talk to anyone and she did it best when she was feeding them. There are few people who will refuse a cup of coffee and some good cookies at a table where they are noticed and loved. A roast beef dinner is a great place to hear someone’s stories, those glimpses into their life that you’ll never get through surface chit chat for a few minutes at church or at a community event.
We all have different ways of relating to strangers, but as followers of Jesus, I don’t think we ever have an excuse to be stand off-ish, cold, or disinterested in people. Not everyone you meet will be a kindred spirit, but I would like to think that in the family of God there are no outcasts, no lonely people who are not being noticed and welcomed. Making people feel comfortable and at ease in our presence is a gift we can give to anyone.
“The secret to being loved is to love. And the secret to being interesting is to be interested. And the secret to having a friend is being a friend.” ~G.D. Melton~