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Are American Friendships Superficial?

Why do many immigrants consider American friendships superficial?

Source: ruurmo/Flickr

I was speaking to a German woman who has lived in the United States for a decade and has made it her permanent home. She was describing her likes and dislikes about the U.S. in comparison to Germany.

For example, on the positive side, she was enthusiastic about the opportunities for work and advancement she had found here—based on her skills and accomplishments—as opposed to Germany, where an insistence on the right credentials is often insurmountable. On the negative side, however, she complained that American friendships are superficial.

I have heard this criticism before, with variations—"No deep friendships," "People form and dissolve relationships too easily," "You don't know if you can really trust people," and so forth.

She also described a misunderstanding with a co-worker, who referred to her as a friend.

"You're not my friend," she said. "You're an acquaintance. We go out for coffee together and chat about things. That's not friendship."

The woman was offended—not surprisingly. Telling someone in the U.S., "You're not my friend," is tantamount to saying, "You're my enemy." It took quite a while for her to overcome this misstep.

What is going on here?

To begin with, in a conversation, Germans tend to be quite direct. (An American might joke that their words are so long that there is no time left to beat around the bush.) Where an American might say, "From my point of view, I see it this way," a German might simply say, "I think X."

Direct speech can seem inconsiderate to Americans. In this regard, Brazilians are to Americans as Americans are to Germans. Americans who are new to Brazil complain, "You never know what Brazilians think," or even, "People are always lying to me." From the Brazilian point of view, they're being considerate, modulating what they say according to the non-verbal reactions of the other person, so as to have an agreeable conversation.

Germany is also part of the Old World. A family may live in the same town, or even the same house, for several centuries; everyone knows everyone, and personal relationships develop gradually over extended periods of time.

The United States has only been around for two centuries. We are a nation of immigrants, and time begins for many families with their arrival here. Our history of wagon trains and the conquest of the West involved a similar internal migration experience—breaking the ties of family and friendship, and then forming new ones.

American individualism means that we give more emphasis to our own needs in forming and dissolving relationships than do cultures organized around traditional forms and relationships. This means that people who don't know one another can form groups to satisfy common needs. In criticizing what she viewed as the superficiality of our friendships, the German woman also praised the existence of numerous informal groups—around hobbies, interests, work, self-improvement, religion, and so forth—that make it possible to meet new people.

For generations, America has been the world center of capitalism, and capitalism prizes a mobile labor force. Thus, it is not surprising that many Americans have developed the ability to form and dissolve relationships, as they are periodically uprooted to earn a living or advance a career in another city, state, or region.

I should also mention that, during her childhood, the place where the woman grew up was in East Germany. Before reunification, the Stasi (secret police) were an omnipresent danger. People never knew if they told someone their true thoughts and feelings, whether the information could be passed on to be used against them. Trusting someone as a friend could mean putting your life in their hands—a much greater commitment than friendship here. Even though that time has passed, the more intense commitment involved in friendship lingers on.

German-English dictionaries define a friend as Freund and vice versa. But clearly, despite many features in common, the two words are not equivalent. Friendship in the United States and Germany is similar, but not the same. As I told the woman about her co-worker, "She was your friend, but not your Freundin."

(This issue is discussed further in my next post.)

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