Winning Friends and Influencing People: College Cause Edition
College is a time for people to get really involved in something they’re passionate about, whether it’s a Free Tibet, vegetarianism, their college political party of choice, or something else entirely. However, what starts out as a well-intentioned passion for social change can quickly take a nosedive into the realm of irritating (and alienating) everyone around you. Here are some tips to prevent that from happening and, hopefully, encourage others to listen to you.
Don’t get confrontational: This is the particular problem of newly-converted vegetarians (especially if they came to it via PETA). There is nothing wrong with not eating meat (or only buying fair trade, or campaigning for a candidate), but there is something wrong with being rude to people who disagree with you. If, to use the vegetarian example, you rag on your friends every time they sit down with a dining hall steak, they will grow to hate you. However, if they simply begin to notice that you don’t eat meat and ask about it, it can be the opening for a great conversation about why you’ve made the switch. You don’t want your defining feature to be your cause, because that alienates people who don’t initially agree with you. You want to be “Tim, my lab partner who uses Linux and doesn’t eat meat,” and not, “Tim, that asshole who glares at me when I grab a burger.” There’s a difference.
Target your marketing: This is a big issue with political groups or causes on campus. If you know someone well enough to invite them to your club meeting, you should have a general feel for their thoughts about whatever your club focuses on. If you know that your friend is a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, don’t invite them to Young Republicans (and visa versa). They’re going to take it as a personal attack, and it will damage your relationship without helping your cause. Go after people who you know are, at the very least, not currently opposed to whatever it is you’re pushing for, and try to find common ground with people who disagree with you.
Don’t take it personally: If your friend can’t make it to your Free Tibet rally, don’t take it to mean that they don’t care about you or your cause. If they’re not in your club, they’re not obligated to attend events and they may have chosen to stay apart for a variety of reasons: most likely, they’re just bogged down with work. If someone tells you they can’t attend an event, don’t keep pressing the point–they’ll get irritated and feel like a bad friend for not being able to go. And, if they’re turning you down because they don’t care about your cause, you’re putting them into a very difficult place the more you push.
Lead by example: Say your passion is ethically-produced clothing. Excellent! Instead of preaching about the evils of sweatshop labor all the time, make an effort to wear fair trade or second-hand clothes. Take your friends thrift store shopping. The point is to show people that it is possible to live up to the ideals you hold without being a superlady or -fella. If you want to bring people around to your side of things, lead by example rather than by talk.
Be willing to listen: College is about exchanging new ideas–no doubt you hold some that are different than those you came in with. Part of that exchange is being willing to listen to people even if they disagree with you. This isn’t to say that you have to respect people who are just completely incorrect, but if someone’s coming at an issue from a different place than you, respect that. You may find that you have more in common with them in terms of your goals than you thought.
Adopting a pet cause while you’re at school is part of the traditional college experience. But it isn’t the sum total of your time spent learning–don’t push people away who could be potential allies.