Making Friends: Following the Cultural Rules of Relationship-Building

Is it easy to make friends in your culture?

In the category of “making friends” in the 2020 Expat Insider survey, conducted annually by InterNations, Switzerland ranks at the bottom end of the list at 53. 

Only Japan, Norway, Sweden, Kuwait, and Denmark offer tougher friend-making odds. 

The Local describes making friendships in these countries quite aptly:

“The way to their hearts can sometimes feel as long, dark and cold as the Nordic winters.”

And considering the Swiss concept of friendship and aversion to small talk with strangers, it’s easy to see why this would be the case.

An outsider might find it difficult to gain the trust and loyalty of lifelong friendship from the Swiss…particularly, as an expat, who is more likely to leave the country at some point.

So, how do you build friendships in countries where it’s notoriously hard and where your expat status makes it more likely that your time is fleeting?

Take Your Cue from Locals

Differing concepts of friendship can be a struggle, but some cross-cultural understanding will help ease the transition.

An American in Switzerland should be considerate of differences in communicational comfort.

Because the most important thing to keep in mind in countries that have a more restrictive definition of friendship is to hold back, as your own cultural approach will come across as overbearing.

Refrain from small talk with strangers in grocery stories. When with colleagues, speak in generalities and don’t get too personal too quickly.

And on the other side of the pond, a Swiss expat in America should brace oneself for discomfort when it comes to communication and friendship.

You might choose either to be open to adapting to the norm of small talk and practice sharing your personal life, bit by bit, or you might accept being viewed as closed and reserved by your American colleagues.

If your goal is to make friends and integrate, the first choice will obviously gain you more ground in a culture that’s more sociable than your own.

And remember: when you’re a foreigner, making friends is more than just socializing; a local friend can greatly aid you in understanding and navigating the culture.

Speaking in Generalities

As with everything, these generalities are not inclusive of every American and every Swiss.

You’ll find some Americans to be private and reserved and some Swiss to be more open to friendship.

You must always take stereotypes with a grain of salt and know that each and every person is an individual case.

Regardless, an awareness of your host culture’s general approach to human-to-human contact will help you avoid overstepping the common social boundaries that the culture deems agreeable.

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.

Know the Rules: Understanding the Local Concept of Friendship

“True friends are the ones with whom you shared a sandbox.”

This is a Swiss saying, and it summarizes how the Swiss feel about friendships in general.

Friends are the people they grow up with. This is the general Swiss view.

They view foreigners’ concepts of friendship (particularly, Americans) as superficial.

They may also view certain areas of discussion with friends or social groups as taboo.

Because of these values and norms surrounding friendship, Switzerland might be one of the toughest places in the world to make friends as a foreigner.

In fact, many expats give up and stick to themselves.

But before throwing in the towel when it comes to cross-cultural friendships, learn the rules.

You might find it’s easier to make friends when you know what the local concept of friendship is to begin with.

Local Concept of Friendship

The definition of true friendship differs across cultures, as does what is considered acceptable in social settings. 

Simply put, to make friends according to local standards, you must know what friendship means to that culture.

The rules of forming a friendship in another culture are three-pronged.

They involve knowing the:

  1. Approach to Human Interaction
  2. Socially Acceptable Discussion Topics
  3. Pace by which Relationships are Expected to Progress

Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

Approach 

One culture’s approach to human interaction – i.e., tone and delivery – may be very different than that of another culture.

The way in which we speak to each other – whether politely or jokingly – might be considered too uptight in one culture or too abrasive and disrespectful in another.

Knowing the tone and approach to communication that is culturally expected at different stages of a budding friendship can help you in forming cross-cultural friendships.

Discussion Topics

What can you talk about? What is off-limits?

While you might come from an open culture, some cultures are much more generally private than others.

They might see sharing private thoughts and feelings as oversharing, particularly if the relationship is new.

While talking about the weather might sound boring, being too intrusive or intimate in another culture upon first approach is a surefire way to be friendless.

Pacing

As with any developing relationship, there are typical steps to increasing intimacy in friendship and communication, no matter which culture.

Beginning with the basic level of personal communication, greetings are socially acceptable (and expected) to form common bonds during the initial stages of communication.

Next, you might engage in small talk about the workplace (if this is a situation in which you work together) and then non-work-related small talk.

If the relationship progresses, factual personal information might come next: sharing where you live, what you like to do in your down-time, etc.

As you move into true “friendship” territory, more intimate communication will be shared. Whether that’s a sharing of feelings, fears, dreams, the meaning of life, etc.

While most friendships develop along this curve, the pacing across cultures often differs.

For instance, you might move through all four stages within one plane ride. Or it could take you a year to reach this point.

If both participants are from the same culture, their pacing often aligns. They feel completely fine and comfortable becoming “fast friends” on a redeye.

If the participant is from a different culture, they might be uncomfortable with the pacing.

They might feel their boundaries are being intruded upon too quickly, and this invasion of privacy will be turn them off to friendship.

All cultures have different expectations of how and when to progress and intensify communication toward friendship. We’ll talk more about these rules next week.