Americans vs. the Swiss: Defining Friendship

An American sits down beside a Swiss on an airplane. 

After some initial friendly banter (one-sided from the American), he asks, “Where are you off to?”

The Swiss, slightly uncomfortable, is reluctant to respond, but the American doesn’t take the cue.

Without prompt, he proceeds to share his entire trip with the Swiss. He was visiting his son who lives abroad in France. They went on a bike journey across the Baltics together. He’s now heading home to Minnesota, where he’s retired. He and his wife have three other kids, all of whom are newly out of the nest. Their absence has been particularly hard on him, and he’s been trying to find new hobbies – like biking – to fill that empty void where activities with his children once stood.

“Enough about me…” he wraps up. “What about you? What do you do?”

The Swiss squirms in his seat. This man is a stranger, and it’s none of his business. Even worse, the Swiss has nowhere to turn. The nonstop flight is eight hours. Would it be rude to put his headphones in?

This is a marked difference between American and Swiss culture.

Small talk is a common, acceptable, and even appreciated social norm in America.

In Switzerland, not so much.

Sharing Personal Info

This chart illustrates just how uncomfortable the above American just made his Swiss cohort.

The Swiss only share small talk with buddies or friends – and sometimes with colleagues.

In fact, the American went well past small talk, sharing non business related topics, personal factual information, and even personal emotional themes, all of which are only shared between close friends in Switzerland.

To breach this wall with a stranger can feel egregious to the Swiss.

As we talked about last week, respecting others’ privacy is highly valued in Swiss culture.

Their “bubble” is much larger than that of their American counterpart.

Comfort Zone of Communication

The comfort zone of communication is considerably tighter in Switzerland and the scope of people with whom they communicate narrower.

Americans talk about anything and everything with their friends and are, more often than not, comfortable sharing more with a broader range of people as well, whether they be acquaintances or even strangers on a plane.

Swiss view friendship as intimate and permanent. Being a friend means being there, through thick and thin; it’s a life-long commitment not to be taken lightly.

Essentially, the Swiss have no “degrees” of friendship; they have a single solid unalterable definition.

Americans, on the other hand, have a wider range of friendships. They might have people they consider close friends who always have their back, others they consider fun and easygoing buddies who come and go from their lives, and still others with whom they’d be happy to grab a beer and discuss politics but not necessarily share their deepest darkest secrets.

While Americans might view “close” friendships similarly to the way the Swiss view friendship in general, they are also more often open to lighthearted, casual friendships with most anyone.

To some, they might be considered “fair-weather friends,” while to others with whom they are more intimate, they are considered loyal.

But they are willing to share degrees of themselves and their lives with even strangers, all the same.

So, how does one make friends in a culture with such a different concept of friendship?

We’ll bridge that gap next week.

How Culture Impacts a Person’s Sense of Control (aka Locus of Control)

Do you believe in fate?

Last week, we talked about how the degree to which someone feels life is directed by destiny dictates their locus of control – that is their feeling of control over their own lives.

Let’s look at how the locus of control unfolds in the workplace.

The Blame Game

When a goal is set and not reached in a workplace environment, the reactions of your colleagues can be very telling.

Sheila blames Jeremy for not delivering the documents in time for her to complete her task.

Jeremy blames Tom for not communicating promptly.

Tom blames his home life for distracting him.

Team Leader Lisa admits she missed the mark and should have taken the campaign in another direction. She apologizes for the part she played in not meeting the goal.

People with an internal locus of control take personal responsibility for their role in a group’s failure, while those with an external locus point at everyone else but themselves, whether they see fault in the “weakest links” of the group or in external factors.

Cross-Cultural Factors

How do cross-cultural factors come into play in the locus?

The locus of control is directly related to personality orientation; however, social psychologists have begun to study the majority locus of control in various cultures and the factors that influence it.

They’ve discovered that quite often the people of any given culture look at fate or self-control in a generally collective manner.

As you may have guessed, individualist cultures generally demonstrate an internal locus of control. They believe they’re the masters of their own fate.

Collectivist cultures – like those of China or Japan – demonstrate an external locus. They accept that things are out of their hands and don’t put weight on the individual’s role in the whole.

To illustrate this, when Americans and Chinese were surveyed about their view of fate, these were the results.

locusofcontrol

89% of questioned Americans agreed with the statement, “What happens to me is my own doing,” while 65% of Chinese admitted, “Sometimes I feel I don’t have control over the direction my life is taking.”

This aligns with each culture’s dominant traits, with Americans espousing ambition, individualism, and the “American dream,” while China espouses harmony and collectivism.

Next week, we’ll talk a little bit about how the group locus of control can be divided up further amongst ethnic groups and even simply locations in the same country. We’ll also talk about primary and secondary control. Stay tuned.