Tanya Menon: What Can We Gain By Expanding Our Social Circles? Humans naturally seek out cliques or in-groups. But organizational psychologist Tanya Menon encourages us to break out of our social comfort zones, for wider opportunities to grow.
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Tanya Menon: What Can We Gain By Expanding Our Social Circles?

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Tanya Menon: What Can We Gain By Expanding Our Social Circles?

Tanya Menon: What Can We Gain By Expanding Our Social Circles?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Comfort Zones. So out of all of the comfort zones that we find ourselves in like, you know, the Lazy Boy chair that we are comfortably sitting in or the TV shows we watch or the food we choose to eat or the places we live, it seems that the most common example is social circles.

TANYA MENON: Yeah. I think that it's easy. We're talking to people who are similar to us. There's no threat in that they're not going to reject us.

RAZ: This is organizational psychologist Tanya Menon.

MENON: I'm an associate professor at The Ohio State University at the Fisher College of Business.

RAZ: And her work is all about networks, like the people we choose to surround ourselves with.

MENON: This is one of the most basic ideas in psychology that people form cliques. But what's really fascinating is that any little tiny scrap of commonality, we grab on to those as well. So if you and I are the same height, we just feel comfortable standing there talking to each other.

RAZ: And Tanya says even though it's really hard to force ourselves out of our social comfort zones, we all have the ability to do it. Actually, she sees this every year when she gets a new batch of business school students.

MENON: Day one, they're so open. At that moment in their lives, they're connecting with everybody. They're in lunch with all different kinds of people. They're sitting with new people. But literally, in a matter of weeks, it crystallizes. They all find their friends. They find people who are usually looking just like them, and they sit and cluster together. And that wonderful moment of openness ends. All of those other connections wither away. Anthropologists call this liminality, these moments in our lives where we're just open. We are living in a gray area. We're between worlds. We're out of the boundaries that normally constrain us. It's only a few weeks later where they stop this.

RAZ: I mean, Tanya, it would make sense like from an evolutionary standpoint that we seek out a comfortable group of like-minded people, that, like, at a certain time, you know, 240,000 years ago, we found people like us who wouldn't kill us who we could build a community with. Like, it makes sense why we're like that.

MENON: Yeah. I think these basic tendencies that human beings have, I think it's natural. I think they're critical to our survival. If we're not in trusting relationships with friends and family, many of our basic functions would be impossible. And so it's not a problem when we're looking to them for comfort and support. It is a problem when we get stuck, when we need a way out of the world that we're in, whether it's you've lost a job, you want to change a career, you want to do something different, you're simply at a place in your life where you're in a rut.

RAZ: Tanya Menon picks up this idea from the TED stage.


MENON: This is when we really pay a price for living in a clique. Mark Granovetter, the sociologist, he had a famous paper called "The Strength Of Weak Ties." And he asked people how they got their jobs. And what he learned was that most people don't get their jobs through their strong ties - their father or their mother or their significant other. They instead get jobs through weak ties, people who they just met. So if you think about what the problem is with your strong ties, think about your significant other, for example. The network is redundant. Your weak ties, people you just met today, they are your ticket to a whole new social world. The thing is, people always tell me, I want to get a new job. I want to get a great opportunity.

And I say, well, that's really hard because your networks are so fundamentally predictable. Map out your habitual daily footpath, and what you'll probably discover is that you can start at home. You go to your school or your workplace. You maybe go up the same staircase or elevator. You go to the bathroom, the same bathroom and the same stall in that bathroom. You end up in the gym. Then you come right back home. It's like stops on a train schedule. It's that predictable. It's efficient. But the problem is that you're seeing exactly the same people. Make your network slightly more inefficient. Go to a bathroom on a different floor. You encounter a whole new network of people. So the takeaway here is not just take someone out to coffee. It's a little more subtle. It's go to the coffee room. A simple change in planning, a huge difference in the traffic of people and the accidental bumps in the network.

RAZ: So, Tanya, I hear you. And I want to do this. I want to follow your advice. But here's thing, like, I am also very introverted. And it can be painfully difficult for me to do that in a group. It's hard for me to do this. So what do you do?

MENON: What we've discovered is that it's often not introversion and extroversion. What the researchers find particularly powerful is an idea called self-monitoring, your ability to adapt to other people, to be a social chameleon. So you could be this introvert who is very willing and open to hearing and adapting to people of all different kinds of experience.

RAZ: Yes, totally. Yes.

MENON: So the people who have these broad bridging networks, they're what we call high self-monitors. The high self-monitors are really skilled at connecting with people even if they don't agree with them. You're simply listening to them without judgment, without injecting your opinion into this. It's like a muscle, and we've just got to get good at exercising it.


MENON: The minute we meet someone, we are looking at them. We meet them. We're initially seeing, you're interesting; you're not interesting; you're relevant. We do this automatically. We can't even help it. And what I want to encourage you to do instead is to fight your filters. I want you to take a look around this room, and I want you to identify the least interesting person that you see, and I want you to connect with them over the next coffee break. And I want you to go even further than that. What I want you to do is to find the most irritating person you see, as well, and connect with them. What you are doing with this exercise is, you are forcing yourself to see what you don't want to see, to connect with who you don't want to connect, to widen your social world. Here's my question for you. What are you doing that breaks you from your social habits? Where do you find yourself in places where you get injections of diversity - unpredictable diversity?

RAZ: So basically, to step out of your comfort zone, you are going to have to experience discomfort.

MENON: Yeah. You have to experience discomfort, and you have to know that feeling that is associated with it. Maybe it's, you know, jeez, I'm scared at this moment that you're going to reject me or I'm feeling really irritated right now because you and I don't agree with each other. But there's tremendous benefits of being able to do this. Getting a new job is one thing. People who have lots of diversity in their networks in this way, they also end up being more creative. They're more likely to be promoted rapidly. And what you're actually doing is enriching yourself, checking your opinions, forcing yourself to confront different ideas.

RAZ: But how - I mean, how wide of a network can an average person handle? I mean, isn't there, like, a limit to all this?

MENON: Absolutely. We don't want to spread ourselves too thin, right? So we have so many connections. We have so many different voices speaking to us. We don't know what to do with them. The problem is we are usually so narrow. We need a little injection of diversity and human beings. Our nature is just to find that in-group, find that similarity. We sometimes need ways to push ourselves out of that habit and create new habits.

RAZ: That's organizational psychologist Tanya Menon. You can watch her whole talk at ted.com.

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