I am just back from a wonderful adventure through parts of New Zealand and Australia. Throughout or trip, my husband and I kept noticing how friendly everyone seemed. Granted, much of our exposure was to folks working in the service industry, as we interacted mostly with waiters, shop-keepers, and the like. However, even the people doing airport security or driving public transportation were remarkably kind. When have you last seen a TSA agent smile and joke with you?
We wondered about the source of this friendliness. Steve thought it might be related to the absence of gun violence in NZ. Though New Zealanders own a lot of guns, gun-related deaths are rare, especially compared to what we see in the US. I imagine that the high quality of living probably contributes to a more friendly demeanor among New Zealanders. They have free health care, so no one is worried about going broke over medical bills. I’ve read since returning that levels of racism are low in New Zealand. The population is relatively small (5 million) and multi-cultural. Though white people make up the majority, they come from a variety of backgrounds. New Zealand is a relatively young country, so there is less a sense of established “us vs. them” groups. Its population is highly mobile, so they have the custom of meeting and integrating with new people. New Zealand also has some of the lowest corruption rates in the world. Another thing to keep in mind is that tourism is a big part of their economy, so the social norm of greeting strangers warmly has an economic benefit. Some propose that New Zealanders are friendly because the indigenous Maori are friendly.
Whatever the cause of this frenzy of friendliness, I was struck by its effects on me. I have written before about my experience with homophobia, and the impact it has had on making me more socially withdrawn, as to avoid potential negative interactions with strangers who may be homophobic. Normally, in new cities, I am more conservative in outing myself by holding Steve’s hand as we walk, or getting too close when sitting in restaurants. I have an automatic spidey-sense scanning the environment for potential harm coming my way. However, with all of the explicit friendliness offered to us, I felt more comfortable in my own skin. I felt less socially withdrawn and more willing to engage strangers in conversations. The experience of swimming in that sea of friendliness helped me see again how much my own projection of potential danger blocks me from connecting with others.
Friendliness begets friendliness. This is a bit of a no-brainer, but yet still provides a powerful lesson in noticing our habits. Past traumas can leave us stuck in a habit mode that does not reflect the truth of our current circumstances. My past experiences with homophobes has left me gun-shy around strangers. My fear brain highlights potential dangers, even when the likelihood of those dangers is small. While I can appreciate how my fear brain is concerned for my survival, I must also recognize that it biases my view of others unfairly.
Mindfulness helps us discover ourselves again and again, and grow through the practice of observation. What past hurts are still driving how you interact with the world today? What message is your fear brain sending? How are you distorting the present moment by looking through the lens of past harms?
With these insights, we can start to unstick ourselves from the places where we’re stuck. Look below to discover opportunities to practice mindfulness to help your continued evolution. It’s never too late. We never stop growing.