Strangers and Friends: A Shared History and Less Graciousness

Ryan Holiday asks a very good question: why do we extend patience and tolerance to strangers, while simultaneously treating those closest to us less graciously?

It’s an interesting question with some equally interesting possible answers (is it a subconscious and inefficient way of attempting to ease our daily lives by telling those we spend the most time with how we want to be treated?). I like the conclusory piece of advice:¬†we should give everyone “the graciousness of meeting them fresh each time”.

Some weirdo says something to you in the grocery store and you smile and nod your head, “Yup!” Just to avoid a scene right? You have a meeting with a sales rep and indulge the friendly but pointless chitchat even though you hate it. But a friend mispronounces a word and we leap to correct them. Your girlfriend tells a boring story and you’ve got to say something about it, you’ve got to get short with her. What kind of bullshit is this? We give the benefit of courtesy to everybody but the people who earned it.

Think of how much patience we have for total strangers and acquaintances. But what a short fuse we have for the actual people in our life. In the course of our everyday lives, our priorities are so very backwards. We do our best to impress people we’ll never see again and take for granted people we see all the time. We’re respectful in our business lives, casual and careless in our personal. We punish closeness with criticism, reward unfamiliarity with politeness.

This is a great example of why I read Ryan’s work: he’s adept at pointing out the everyday hypocrisies that we rarely notice.



5 responses to “Strangers and Friends: A Shared History and Less Graciousness”

  1. Greg

    I think there’s a very strong evolutionary reason for why we treat strangers so politely. In short, we don’t know how strangers will react to any of our reactions. However, those closest to us are known quantities that we can engage with at much deeper levels than with strangers. It is the very fact that our friends have made their way into our inner circle that we feel comfortable and open enough to *act like ourselves* and that’s really what this is about. Do you politely correct yourself in your head when you start doing something boring or stupid? No. You use normal language with normal tones that have real meaning to you. By extension our friends and family are seen as extensions of our personal selves. Politeness is as much about ensuring a specific environment and outcome. I’m not saying you should take advantage of your friends — not at all — but what I’m saying is that being overly polite to those closest to you will send a signal to them that they aren’t close to you. It’s a VERY fine line.

  2. Vanessa

    I’m sorry but I don’t see what is worth posting about Ryan’s article. Did he just discover that you should not take your loved ones or close relationships for granted? And now he needs to share it with the world?

    I mean, the part about being polite to strangers might have something to it for most people (in the US) but “We give the ben¬≠e¬≠fit of cour¬≠tesy to every¬≠body but the peo¬≠ple who earned it.”? “We‚Äôre … casual and care¬≠less in our per¬≠sonal (lives). We pun¬≠ish close¬≠ness with crit¬≠i¬≠cism…”. Seriously? Who does that? If this would be true, the world would consist only of lonely, bitter people who don’t have friends or spouses. I just don’t think it applies to that many people.

    Well, apart from a handful of Ryan’s readers who thanked him for the eye-opener and his advice on how to stop being a jerk.

    Sorry, Lloyd, better luck next time ;). I’m used to being blown away by your posts. Or at least intrigued.

  3. Vanessa,

    I can’t speak for Ryan, but I don’t think that this is being presented as a piece of Earth-shattering insight. I also don’t think that it’s simply about taking people for granted or about being a jerk. Instead, I believe that this is about treating those close to us better and about having patience. It’s being pointed out simply as an unusual way of behaving.

    Surely at least once in your life you’ve snapped at someone close to you; been mean to someone you love; or been irresponsible with a friends trust? If not, I would be amazed. However, it’s a rare thing for someone to have acted like this to a complete stranger, right? I believe that’s what this is about.

    It’s not saying that we’re complete rouges to those close to us all the time. Just that we sometimes are, and that we should learn to control those impulses‚Ķ like we do when in situations with strangers.

    It’s a pity you didn’t enjoy the post at all, but hopefully you’ll find something to your liking over the next few days.

  4. Greg, this is exactly why I love evolutionary psychology!

    There are so many perfectly valid reasons for why this behaviour manifests itself, and your suggestion is a great one. I can completely see that being the case.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s got me thinking‚Ķ

  5. If you like a blog that points out the every¬≠day hypocrisies we rarely notice, you’ll love Katja Grace: