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.

Sharing Culture: Why Local Friends Are Important to Foreign Managers

You work for an international company that relocates you to Beijing, China.

Having never been to China and knowing little about the culture, you feel like a fish out of water.

Nothing is familiar to you; the lay of the land, the crowds, the language on street signs.

You think of home – your family/friends, your favorite haunts, your favorite foods – and you immediately feel homesick.

But you know your success in this foreign country depends on building your own home here, even if it’s temporary. 

It depends on your ability to integrate.

And to aid that integration, you begin your friend-finding mission.

Expat Community

The first people you meet are, of course, your colleagues, some of whom are expats from your own country.

You join them for trivia night at a bar that caters to foreigners, and they introduce you to the broader expat community.

This community makes you feel immediately comfortable. 

They laugh at your jokes, understand your references – they understand YOU.

The group is familiar. It’s home. 

It’s easy to choose comfort and familiarity over differences that may generate potential conflict.

With people of your own culture, you’re not navigating a cross-cultural minefield; you generally know where the mines are and you avoid them.

But if you want to truly integrate into a foreign culture, you cannot self-segregate, sticking to your own flock.

You must migrate into unknown territories.

Cross-cultural Friendships Over Comfort

This is not to say you shouldn’t make expat friends.

In fact, these friendships often evolve into lifelong friendships and are also helpful to your cultural integration.

But when you avoid making local friends altogether, you’re losing out on an important part of living in a foreign culture: sharing.

Sharing culture not only allows you to better understand your employees and direct reports, as you better understand the culture you’re managing in; it also shows them that you care.

Without respect and a genuine interest in the culture and its people, you won’t connect with your local colleagues and employees. 

They will note that you haven’t sought out any significant cultural experiences in your new home.

They will note that you don’t bother with the language, the customs, or anything else.

They will note that you stick to your own flock and don’t show interest in making friends or sharing culture with the locals.

As with anything, you’ll only get out of your experience abroad what you make of it.

You can choose to stay in your bubble and never expand your comfort zone.

Or you can choose to share in a new culture, meet new people, appreciate new ideas and traditions, and ultimately broaden your horizons.

Next week, we’ll talk about the three types of expatriates, and you can decide which category you want to fall into.

Learning a Culture: From Scholastic Learning to Experiential Learning

Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing how important learning the language, religion, and history of your host culture is.

This conscious, and often scholastic, learning process requires time, energy, and discipline in ways that may make you feel like you’re back at school.

It can oftentimes be a tough process, requiring many studious hours logged. After all, you’re investing in educating yourself about an entire culture.

But don’t worry, not all cultural learning will require you to dust off the books. Some of it – and some might say the most important part of it – is experiential.

Learning Through Sharing

You are not going to learn the power and emotion of Spanish flamenco watching it on YouTube.

You are not going to learn the colloquial idioms of Portuguese by memorizing by rote.

You are not going to learn how to make Italian pasta by hand without getting your hands dirty (or flour-y).

Learning culture is an experiential process and, without learning by sharing, you’ll be missing out on all the warmth of learning culture.

Cultures are not two-dimensional. They are living and breathing; they must be experienced in-the-round.

Immersion for Integration

“Instead of having 100 rubles, it’s better to have 100 friends.”

That’s what a Russian proverb says.

And foreign friends will be so much more valuable to you than rubles, as they will be able to show you their cultural behaviors, tell you their history, and teach you their traditions better than any book can.

Making friends is an investment in your cultural integration, as it allows immersion learning.

This type of learning involves sharing time and food and language with local friends.

Whether you’re an expatriate living in your host country or an international manager traveling abroad often, local friends will make learning fun rather than book work.

Not only will local friends make you culturally savvy, but they’re likely to expose you to local entertainment and opportunities that you wouldn’t have been privy to on your own.

And, even better, you’ll build life-long relationships in the process.