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
? 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
? 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