Whenever a new mom friend sends me a Facebook friend request, I hesitate.
It’s not that I don’t want to see cute pictures of their kids or hear what they had for dinner. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate the ease of coordinating get-togethers that social media enables. Usually, we’ve already hit it off quite nicely, and I could see us becoming friends.
So I click “accept.” Then I wonder if I’m going to regret it.
Do I really want to find out my new friend’s opinions on vaccinations? Or why they think climate change is a hoax? Or which politicians they think are despicable and which they find admirable?
The answer is yes – half of the time.
Too often, I find myself judging a new friend, not on the time we’ve spent hanging out, but on the political views she posts to Facebook. We might have discussed little more than diaper rashes and bedtimes when we met at the park, but now I find myself writing long comments on articles she shared on police-civilian interactions and the state of the American health care system.
The next time we meet, I will either know she is someone with whom I can safely air controversial opinions or someone with whom to awkwardly try to avoid any topic which could even potentially lead to a political debate. Organic foods? Unusually hot weather? A good borscht recipe? Best to avoid them all.
We’ve heard over and over again that Americans are becoming increasingly more politically divided. A Pew Research Survey found that Americans were significantly more divided in 2014 – years before our most recent contentious election – than they had been in 2004. The survey found that the median Republican is more conservative than 94 percent of all Democrats, and the median Democrat is more liberal than 92 percent of all Republicans.
By contrast, in 1994 the median Republican was more conservative than 70 percent of Democrats, and the median Democrat was to the left of 64 percent of Republicans. To put it another way, 20 years ago, you were much more likely to share a fair number of views with someone who was of the opposite political party than you are today.
Unsurprisingly, we tend to become friends with people who share similar political beliefs. Perhaps it’s because we share similar values and beliefs with them. In my case, as a self-admitted political nerd, it might be because I bore people who aren’t political by constantly asking them if they’ve heard the latest news.
Facebook’s algorithms can help further this self-segregation. When we click on an article, we are more likely to then see similar articles. So if a friend is consistently sharing articles from sites we like, or whose topics interest us, we will see more and more of what they post. Eventually, our Facebook feeds – and our friend circles – become a homogenous source of ideas that we already agree with.
But occasionally, a friend’s post breaks through the algorithm, causing us to clench our jaws and role our eyes. In the days before social media, we were warned never to talk about politics, money, or religion in polite company. Now we discuss intimate topics with people we barely know. Often it has the very result our mothers warned us about; a friendship ends before it even gets off the ground.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? Is it better to know early that we won’t be making a bosom buddy with whom we can discuss our hopes for the 2018 elections? Do we save time, not investing in a relationship based on chatting about our kids and our bosses, only to find out we have fundamentally different worldviews?
I believe it is a problem. Making friends can be difficult for many of us as we leave school and set out on our own. But unlike my clumsy attempts at friendships in my 20s, I have found making friends after becoming a parent much easier. Between story hour at the library and playdate groups, I am constantly meeting other mothers looking for someone to share the struggles of motherhood. Closing myself off to someone who might finally have the answer to how to get my kids to sleep through the night because they have a different political affiliation seems short-sighted.
Not only do we miss out on potential friends, we also risk developing a narrower view of the world. We can never truly form our own opinions if we are never exposed to critiques of our ideas. When the United States takes another hard look at what direction we want to head in a few years, we will hopefully have learned something from our last contentious election.
As my children grow up, I hope they have an opportunity to meet people who come from a variety of backgrounds and have myriad beliefs – something that is difficult to achieve if we only spend time with people who agree with us.
Of course, it’s difficult to be friends with someone who has fundamentally different values than you do, and it might not always be possible to bridge the partisan divide. But when we can, we should.
Perhaps next time I make a new mom friend, I’ll hold off on accepting the friend request and give her my phone number first. I’ve found it’s much easier to accept differing views from someone who is already our friend than from someone who isn’t.