A Global Understanding

There’s been a lot of great conversation on the blog this week. I’ve been fascinated to read your take on mean girls and online friending, not to mention last week’s discussion of appropriate birthday greetings. (Birthdays are a touchy subject—I love it!). Yesterday I was super intrigued by the divide when it came to huggers and non-huggers. And the comments brought to light another friendship topic I’ve had on the brain: Cultural differences as they pertain to BFFs.

In response to my awkward hugging encounter, one commenter, a German native, wrote: “Maybe this is a cultural thing, but I only hug people I feel somewhat close to. … I don’t hug old-coworkers, classmates or sports buddies just because I haven’t seen them in a long time. We shake hands (this is much more common in Europe, and it’s not at all business-like, just friendly).”

An Australian reader wrote: “North America is a hug or handshake culture and it seems awkward to shake hands with a friend or non-professional acquaintance. Here in Australia we mostly do the European cheek-kiss thing. It still sometimes brings awkward situations but not as much.”

Acceptable friendship behaviors, and the general expectation of what a friendship will be, vary pretty significantly from one country to the next. For example, a reader once told me that in Italy it is totally acceptable to ask a solo diner if you can share a table with them. (Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of every romantic comedy ever?) Not always the case in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Then there are the Croatians and their “friendship over business” stance.

When I first started writing about my search, I discussed it over email with a friend who’s living in Hong Kong. He wrote, “I would be willing to bet that Americans are much more likely to relate to your blog for the simple reason that they are much more likely to travel. In fact, I heard once that something like 85% of the world population ends up living within 20 miles of the house in which they grew up.” I haven’t been able to confirm that exact statistic, but I can say that Americans are the most mobile people in the world. We move, on average, every 5 years. If adults across the globe are more likely to stay in one place, they’re obviously less likely to encounter problems of the I’m-moving-how-do-I-make-new-friends variety.

A study released just last week delved into the differences in how American and Japanese friends communicate. The study discovered that while Americans are all about telling our friends everything, that doesn’t fly between friends in Japan. “[Researchers] found that Japanese people were more likely to feel that relationships were stable and because of this, were less likely to share so much information with their closest friend. However, Americans shared more information with friends than the Japanese because they saw their relationships as more fragile and shifting more often, thus requiring more maintenance via self-disclosure.” The simple fact that Americans move around more is responsible for other cultural differences in friendship behavior—including our tendency to share everything from our bodily functions to our morning drive traffic report.

Tell me, what cultural differences have you noticed? If you live in the U.S., have you observed any changes in friendship behavior when you travel? If you live outside the States, what is the difference between friends here versus where you live?


Filed under The Hard Facts

7 responses to “A Global Understanding

  1. Christina

    In my experience, after traveling to Mexico, where I lived and attended school for four years, there was a noticeable difference in competitiveness. I am the least competitive person you’ll meet, so the lack of rivalry was a welcome relief. I certainly have found an abundance of amazing, supportive friends here in the U.S., however, I am always astounded at the high number of stories I hear first-hand about “friends” interested in one-upping others.

    Back in the States, in a human development class at DePaul, we watched an interesting video. During a research experiment, Hispanic friends (coupled) and American friends (coupled), in separate rooms, were asked to play a board game in order to win a prize. The Hispanics friends figured out that if they each took turns winning, they could both win prizes. When American friends were asked to do the same; they spent so much time trying to win the prize for themselves, that neither ever came close to winning a prize. I was fascinated by this.

    • Lorrie Paige

      This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve studied and compared friendship in the US and outside the US (for instance, check out the book: “Culture Shock! USA”. The chapter dealing with trying to make friends with the locals–the Americans. That’s a VERY interesting chapter regarding friendship in America; it made me feel like becoming an ex-pat!!)

      There is this coldness, competitiveness, and jealousy with Americans that you don’t find a lot of in other countries. Also, a lot of Americans tend to be nice and polite, but then that’s it; they only want to get to that first base with you but never seem to go any further in really developing a real friendship.

      I’ve been studying friendship for about 30 years and I’ve noticed there’s a lot of lack of honor, disloyalty, pettiness, immaturity and leading-you-to-believe-we-will-be-friends behavior in America that is quite disturbing, so your story, Christina, doesn’t surprise me at all.

      Sadly, (in general) Americans just don’t know how to be friends.

  2. I was struck by the note that “85% of the world population ends up living within 20 miles of the house in which they grew up.” (I know; unverified). When the Hubby and I were in New Zealand on our honeymoon, we were getting our very first stamps on our passports (only because North America doesn’t tend to stamp for border crossings). The owners of the B&B where we stayed were amazed at how many Americans don’t travel internationally. Since so many of us in the US take vacation within the country, we’re far less likely to cross international borders than most of the industrial world’s inhabitants.

    Of course, New Zealand is approximately the size of Colorado, so there aren’t as many places to go without leaving the country. Hubby brought up the fact that in the US, we have so much to explore and so many options (two different oceans, tropical locations, arctic locations, desserts, mountains, swamps, etc) that we don’t really need to leave the country in order to find a vacation to our liking. The New Zealanders weren’t convinced, but it was a fun discussion!

  3. Caz

    hmm I definitely agree with you. The reason I relate to this blog so much (and thus why I read it) is because I’m living and making friends in a new country and have moved around a lot as a young adult. My few North American friends who haven’t moved, still face a similar situation as most everyone else has moved away from them.

    A lot of other countries (beyond ‘Western’ ones (in which I include England and Australia/NZ) so maybe I should use ‘English’) have a much higher value on family and your relationship and responsibility towards them. You can’t move away as a young adult because you’re expected to care for elderly parents and take over the family business etc.

    What I’d be interested to know is, of that 85% that live w/in 20 miles of their family home -how many of them have ALWAYS lived within that area? I’d guess there is a much larger population of people who move away for a few years or so as college students and young adults but return to the support of family once they’ve started a family, had kids and elderly parents.

  4. The hugging/kiss on the cheek thing – that was so awkward for me in my first 6 months living in the US. I kissed so many people on the ear cause they didn’t understand what the hell was happening.

    Don’t know if it’s a friendship thing, but the biggest cultural difference I have encountered between Australia and the USA (west coast) is humour. In Australia, you get together with your buddies for a laugh. You tell jokes, make fun of people (kind heartedly of course) and laugh until you wet yourself. So your friends are people that share your sense of humour. Here there is less emphasis on humour and more on sharing your experiences – so your friends are people that share your interests or background or hobbies. This may also vary in other parts of the country, cause I’ve realised it’s very perilous making generalisations about a country as vast and varied as the USA.

  5. So when I first met my boyfriend, he kisses my cheek to say “goodbye”, but no hug, only kisses(Literally only his head got closer. I wasn’t familiar with it, so I thought it should be hug+kiss). It was awkward now I think about it. He is French. I think girls kiss each other goodbye in French too, but guys and guys shake hands. European countries can be very different from each other. The German friend you mentioned may only mentioned German culture as part of “Europe”.

    What I have noticed here is that people are really busy, really. I mean when I was in China(my home country), people would value human relationships over personal success way more that here, but there are individual differences(highly individualistic people still exist.)

    There is some downsides of collectivism, too, even though it might seem that there are moreBFF candidates you are looking for. It is very common to have friends who you can call to invite to dinner while you are making dinner in my culture. It is very possible to text someone to go shopping and get nails down last minute. People are more likely to spend time just chat and drink tea, even men! However China is getting more Americanized than ever. There are something in the culture that reinforces people to cherish friendships. People tend to keep in touch for a long time after brief encounters.

    I think a lot of behaviors Chinese carry in their friendships would be considered “clingy” in US culture, but they are unquestionably normal in China.

  6. Oh hey, I can talk about all of these places! I’m from NZ, have lived in the US, Canada, HK, and China (and travelled a lot in Australia).

    I think non-Americans see Americans as people who don’t travel because there aren’t that many who actually leave the country (as big a country as it is). And yes, NZers have a very small country, and because it’s really far away from anywhere else, they tend to go on really long travels, often of a few years or more (pretty much unheard of to Americans). I’ve just started year 11.

    I think the most difficult thing I found when I was in North America is that, especially for people in their 20s and 30s, most of the conversation is about what you do, not who you are. And so when I was travelling, and either had a temporary job or no job at all, it was often hard for locals to understand where I was coming from (this is not specific to North America, but in other places they didn’t understand things like how I was a single female travelling on her own – “Where is your husband?”).

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