There are many interesting things about us humans. There are painful things too. And then there are those things that are both interesting and painful. The fact that we tend to support and be nicer to total strangers while ignoring and taking the people we know and love for granted is an example of those things that are both interesting and painful.
“Throughout my relationship with [her],” reported a man who claimed that his wife divorced him because he was nicer to strangers than he was to her, “she would point out instances when she felt I was being mean, or impatient, or thoughtless toward her, and that it hurt her feelings because as she was feeling that way, she could see me being kind, patient and thoughtful toward others, even strangers. She wondered why I couldn’t treat her that way, too.” Furthermore, he laments about a young boy he’s drawn to but still finds himself, ironically, alway demeaning:
I have a little boy in third grade who I love in ways I don’t know how to articulate. He’s my favorite everything. But sometimes, I’m kind of a dick to him, and I hate it.
When he gets crumbs on the floor, or makes some mistake that is probably super-standard for little boys in third grade, or otherwise “fails” whatever expectations I have for him in a given moment, I sometimes respond with anger and a little harshness.
I was nicer to other adults than I was to my parents. I was nicer to other people than I was to my wife.
Many of us, even the best of us, can relate to this man’s story. I’m sure that somewhere, right now, the family of a widely-acclaimed philanthropist have an entirely different story to tell about him.
How about in the world of business? Don’t we tend to prefer and patronize total strangers even if the goods/services they offer are inferior to our relatives’ by all standards. There’s even a funny case of businesses taking you for granted after eventually getting your attention as a customer, meanwhile when you were just a stranger and prospective customer, they were all over the place toasting you. For example, here’s recent complaint made by a bank customer:
So, what could be the cause of these behaviours? Judging by the fact that it’s a common trait in many of us, could it have something to do with the way we are wired as humans?
Perhaps it could be egocentric: because we want to gain the validation and approval of those strangers, something we already acquired or might not really care about from relatives? Or in the case of business, could it be based on envy: because we don’t like the fact that our relatives are progressing ahead of us and so we would rather buy from a person against whom we are yet to develop negative biases? Or could it just be that familiarity breeds contempt?
There are several ways by which we can explain this. Zara, a contributor to Thrive Global, an organization providing solutions to enhance well-being, believes that we are nicer to strangers for the same reason we don’t really have strong connections with them. She writes:
There will always be people who do not care about you. Most strangers don’t warrant strong emotions. What you normally get is politeness or annoyance. They may not get the kind of negativity we push onto our loved ones, but they also don’t get the strong love we give to them either.
Apparently, it isn’t that we treat strangers better, we just don’t treat them with any kind of strong emotion. We give compliments and smiles freely and naturally. Yes, we all run into the rare person who is having a bad day and who may be in a grump. We usually tolerate those people and may even be extra kind and polite in the hopes of making their day better.
Acknowledging the fact that even our loved ones and relatives were once strangers towards whom we showed great kindness, Alex Lickerman, a contributor to Psychology Today explicates that “it’s not that all the wonderful things we loved about our loved ones when they first entered our lives have gradually become repulsive to us. Rather, it’s that our tolerance for all the things we’ve always disliked invariably diminishes over time.” That is, with time our tolerance for our relatives’ bullshits diminishes whereas the tolerance is still very high for strangers whom, given enough time, we would end up treating with zero tolerance too.
There are a few more explanations. Tiffany Estep, a Quora user claims that we are kinder to strangers because we want positive reputations with them:
We bump into complete strangers constantly as we go about our daily lives, and a large portion of them we will never meet again. That encounter may be your only chance at making a positive impression, and in the chance that you do meet again, do you want to me remembered as the jerk from the grocery parking lot?
Then, in a voice similar to Alex Lickerman’s sentiment of diminishing tolerance, Tiffany explained that:
…it is easier to like people who you do not truly know, because once you know someone you get to know the good and the bad. However, when you have just met someone, you temporarily have the freedom to frame them in any way you wish. And people have a tendency to view others positively until given a reason not to. In other words, if someone is a complete stranger to you, you really have nothing against them. There is no room for pent up frustration or resentment or annoyance or any of those negative feelings that can build up when you know someone and spend time with them. It is like meeting a blank slate; you know nothing about them and there is no reason to act negatively.
Bringing to mind Mary Rinehart’s argument that “pretense is the oil that lubricates society,” Will Amminger, another Quora user gives a slightly different perspective bordering on the premise of honesty and pretense, saying, a reason why we can be nicer to strangers is…
…because of how honest we can be with friends. We don’t know strangers though, so we have to give our best impressions.
Of course, by “our best impressions” he meant our most pretentious and camouflaged image– cloaking all indwelling blemishes, all unpleasant vices so as to brand ourselves, sell ourselves and invite the world to see us in a made-up light.
Having established some explanations for why we tend to be nicer to strangers than our relatives, it would be just excellent to examine some ways by which we can solve this dilemma. For we don’t want to always face the risk of losing our relationships like in our examples of the man who was divorced and the business against whom a customer lodged a public complaint.
This brings us back to Alex Lickerman. In his earlier mentioned Psychology Today article, he suggested three things you can start doing today to improve your temperament towards your relatives and start showing natural kindness to your loved ones as you would to strangers.
First, he suggests we regularly engage in a mental subtraction of our loved ones from our lives by imagining ways in which we might lose them and meditating on the effects such loss would have in our lives. Practically, he wrote:
Write a list of things you love about your loved ones and then carve out some time every morning—just a few minutes—to imagine how you really could (or, one day, will) lose them. We’re more likely to have an emotional reaction to these imaginings if we envision the absence of a loved ones as visually as possible.[…]
Repeating this practice on a regular basis can transform it into a habit that could continue to fill you with gratitude as long as you continue to do it.
Then he suggests we spend time with our loved ones in the company of others so that we can be influenced to be nicer to loved ones as we are likely to be with strangers. He argued:
Have you ever noticed, for example, how you feel and behave one way with your family and another with your friends—and yet another with your co-workers or boss? We may all be multiple selves, but just which self we are at any one moment isn’t as much up to us as it is to the people around us. I’m suggesting, then, that when in the company of others with whom you feel less intimate, you’ll invariably find yourself behaving more politely and kindly—to our loved ones as well. Further, you’ll have a chance to observe and appreciate the better selves your loved ones have inside them, which are also being pulled out of them by the presence of others. In short, the dynamic between you and your loved ones will change, and generally for the better, when other people are present.
And lastly, with a sentiment that echoes English poet and songwriter Thomas Haynes Bayly’s (1797 – 1839) words in his posthumous piece titled Isle of Beauty that “absence makes the heart fonder,” Lickerman suggests to take a break from our loved ones so as to gain a refreshed perspective of the goodness in them. He wrote:
Do this to acquire a fresh perspective. Get out into the world, alone, so that other experiences and other people pull a more generous self out of you, a self that sees your current life more broadly; that more easily finds a way to appreciate the good in your loved ones; and that achieves a more balanced view of the things that frustrate you about them.
You’ll agree with me that the human condition is laden with so much pain and confusion. Our humanity wears so many vicious garments many of which are impossible to outgrow but some, through conscious decisive actions, can be totally done away with. Even if we have explainable propensity to act nicer towards strangers than to relatives, the potent remedy of our conscious decision to break this curse can help us to daily become better people.