By Anne P. Copeland, Ph. D.*
Many international newcomers to the United States say that Americans do not know what true friendship is - they seem very friendly at first, but the friendships do not grow. Here are a few thoughts that might explain American friendships.
Remember that Americans value independence. To ask for help means to be dependent on a friend. Americans might be willing to accept this dependence, if they really needed help, but they usually try something else first. Americans may also hesitate to offer help to a friend; to do so takes away from the friends independence. Americans tend to keep relationships even, at a concrete level. If you give me a gift, I must give you a gift. If you invite me to dinner, I will invite you to dinner next. If I give you help, you must give me help soon. So Americans may think, One way I can be a good friend is not to force you into the position of needing to pay me back.
Remember that Americans will probably be very direct if they want your help, and expect you to be so, too.
Americans tend to turn to outsiders for help in situations where people from other cultures would turn to friends and family. Americans talk about their problems to therapists. They read books and magazines for help in raising children. They ask lawyers and accountants to organize their money. They hire tutors to help their children with homework. Maybe Americans do this because they move from town to town so often; their family and friends may be in other parts of the country. But it has also become part of the American way of doing things. As a result, there are books where you can find advice, babysitters you can call, therapists who are available and trained to help. So Americans use them.
Many Americans tend to be very friendly early in a relationship. They tell you personal things, and ask you personal questions. They joke around. They call you by your given name. They introduce you to their spouses and invite you to their homes. If these are signs of a close friend in your culture, you may be confused (and hurt) when Americans do not act like close friends later. It may feel like too much too soon, then not enough to you. But it suits many Americans, especially those who move often, or who live among people who move often.
Many international newcomers say that Americans seem very busy. They rarely spend long hours at a café with a friend, or stay at the dinner table until midnight. These are the places where intimate conversations probably happen, and Americans (especially those with young children) miss them.
Americans use the word friend to mean anyone I have spoken to a few times. Americans do not have a good word for someone who is closer than an acquaintance but not as close as a friend. You knowthe person you play tennis with every week, who knows all your childrens names, and who told you the best place to buy shoes, but who does not discuss personal things with you and who would not tell you if you were doing something foolish. In the United States, we call that person a friend. To refer to someone who is very close, we have to add another word - a good friend, a close friend, a best friend, my oldest friend.
Americans do have long-term, close friends. They share problems with each other. They ask each other for help and accept help from them. Their friends may even replace their family in some ways, because their families may live quite far away. But these friendships are rare in many Americans lives, maybe more rare than in the lives of people from another culture.
Sidebar: So What Can You Do?
Many international newcomers feel disappointed that they do not know any Americans well. Some advice:
- Although you may hope that Americans will invite you to get to know them, they may not. Do not be hurt or take it as a rejection. Take the first step yourself. Ask them a question about your town. Invite them to your home. Bring them some food from your country.
- With an American who is friendly, but on a superficial level, try talking about how friendships are different in your country. Most people are interested in these kinds of cultural differences, provided they do not think you are criticizing them.
- Try being a friend your way. You may have to try several times, but you may find an American who wants this kind of closer relationship.
*Excerpted with permission from Newcomers Almanac: A Newsletter for Families New to the United States, Interchange Institute, Brookline, Massachusetts. Anne P. Copeland, Ph.D., is the director of the Interchange Institute, a not-for-profit organization that studies the impact of cultural transitions on individuals, their families, and the organizations for which they work. Contact information is
www.interchangeinstitute.org and email@example.com.
This article appeared in Organization Resources Counselors Expatriate Observer.
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