Many of my friends have moved around the country of Australia for work, especially those in Defence jobs. We often share observations of local culture, especially how hard or easy it is to acclimatize socially in our new context. These interesting comparisons mature with age and are strengthened by a chorus of witnesses who have shared the same experiences.
Notably, in many places, you find friendships and success in your endeavours because of ‘who you know.’ This puts a lot of pressure on making friends fast, often the most ‘popular’ or influential people in your context can help with networking – to begin to feel ‘at home’ in a community of like-minded people. However, this pressure has some problems:
Firstly, when opportunities come because of ‘who you know’, many experienced and talented people miss out on opportunities, whether for a job or a part in a local play, because they are not well-known.
Secondly, when the most influential or popular person is the one who gives newcomers a leg-up, introducing them to the people ‘in the know’ – it gives those people a lot of relational power. We get a situation where certain families become ‘local royalty’ based upon nothing other than ‘who you know.’
Thirdly, the pressure to get ahead can cause individuals who are perhaps feeling insecure about this whole arrangement, to feel like it’s some competition to know the most people and know the ‘right’ people better than anyone else. It’s a kind of game like in politics where there is smoozing and doing favours for people, and perhaps shouting others down, whether to their face or behind it. This leads to some very unbecoming human behaviours, all for the sake of moving up in the world, or at least ‘fitting in’.
If you’re thinking this is sounding like schoolyard politics, then you would be right. It is only through a healthy autonomous relationship with others where accountability and character development are encouraged can societies thrive. If people are afraid to achieve because they will be ridiculed, like a pecking order in a hen house, this leads to a community that is in drudgery, the doldrums, with limited opportunities and unhealthy relationship dynamics.
For all human history, people have been suspicious of outsiders and competitive with one another for attention or success. This is never more apparent than in communities where there is a long generational line of inhabitants. This can happen on a grand scale with the way that we treat outsiders from other countries. Just like the small communities who recognize a familiar face because they are perhaps related, and this is their basis for trust; we can also be suspicious of an unfamiliar face and guarded about allowing opportunities to come their way.
If we can recognize our biases and prejudices, we are a big step closer to overcoming them. This happens in our workplaces, our social groups, universities, schools, churches and social action groups. We can be amicable and embrace one another’s differences, overcoming the challenges begins with our attitudes and behaviours. If you are an influential person in your context, you can be the force for change by modelling these behaviours, rather than feeling challenged and threatened. Healthy communities have a balance of looking inward and outward, to learn and grow by welcoming the stranger.