Friendship In The Us: Too Much Too Soon, Then Not Enough - Anne P. Copeland, Ph.D.

Friendship in the US: Too Much Too Soon, then Not Enough

Recently, I was away from home on a business trip. My husband suddenly had to go away too. There would be one afternoon when neither of us would be home with our children. My husband called one of our usual baby-sitters, the 14-year-old daughter of a Russian couple in our neighborhood. The daughter was busy and could not come. But her mother offered to watch our children for us. My husband said, "Oh, we could not possibly ask you to do that." We had spent several happy evenings with this family, but her offer surprised him. She answered, "Don't you see? We would like to be friends with you."

In a typical American way, we had already thought of this Russian family as our friends. In our minds and vocabulary, they had moved from being "people we know from the children's school" to being "friends" after one dinner together! We probably would have stayed at that level of surface friendship for a long time, if they had not brought their own cultural values to the relationship. Instead, my husband gratefully accepted their offer. And we have gone on to feel an unusual connection to this family.

My husband and I probably have as many "friends" as most American couples. I am sure many of them would have been happy to help in this case. But my husband would have called many teenage baby-sitters (whom we would pay, keeping the relationship formal and distant) before asking any of our friends for this kind of help.

I have heard many international newcomers say that American friendships are superficial (on the surface only). They say 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. Hold on to your seat ? if you are from a country with very different friendship patterns, this may sound crazy to you!

? 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 (as happened with my husband), but they usually will try something else first. Americans

may also hesitate to offer help to afriend. To do this takes away from the friend's 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.

? One intercultural writer suggested that Americans feel that offering help suggests that the friend cannot manage alone. This would be an insult if you think being independent and self-reliant is important (as many Americans do).

? Americans tend to turn to outsiders for help when people from other cultures 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, baby-sitters 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 the 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 how busy Americans seem. It is rare to spend long hours at a cafe with a friend, or to be at the dinner table at 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." I looked in my dictionary under friend to find another word that means "someone you know, but who is not a close friend." The only word I found was acquaintance. This is a good word ? careful speakers of English should use it more often. But an acquaintance is someone you hardly know; for example, the mother you speak to every morning at your child's school but do not know beyond that. We do not have a good word for someone who is closer than an acquaintance but not as close as a friend. You know the person you play tennis with every week, who knows all your children's 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 US, 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 American's lives, maybe more rare than in the lives of people from your culture.