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.

The Hospitality Index: A Hypothetical Example of Ethnocentricity

Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’91, I traveled as a journalist to a region near the former Yugoslavian border of Albania. In many of the remote, mountainous villages to which I traveled, I was the first foreigner seen by locals since the Germans of WWII.

As I explored the region, one of the impressions I had about the people was that they were unconditionally hospitable. They treated this stranger, this foreigner, as an esteemed guest, preparing generous meals for me, despite not having a lot themselves.

One village had only three sheep, and they killed one of them to serve me, though I attempted to discourage such a sacrifice on my account.

Hospitality exceeding no bounds was their cultural norm.

Not only did this manifest in the meals they served, but also in the accommodation. In each house, there was a guest room, fitted with a bed to welcome visitors at any time.

While this region isn’t alone in this cultural norm, as I’ve been so graciously treated with such hospitality in other parts of the world as well, one conclusion that I’ve come to in my travels is this:

Hospitality is best wherever there is no telephone.

Lack of Connection Improves Quality of Connection

People often arrive unannounced to places with no telephone. This may be one reason cultural norms require those who live in remote places to be prepared to accommodate at any time.

The pop-in is inevitable (Seinfeld would hate to be a member of these cultures). Hosts must provide guests a place to stay and a bite to eat last-minute because they have nowhere else to go. And these hosts are more than happy to.

In such open-door cultures, active hospitality – and lavish hospitality, at that – is adopted and valued.

Ethnocentricity’s Bias in the Reverse

Last week, we talked about ethnocentricity: the innate bias we have about our culture being “right” and another being “wrong” and evaluating cultures according to our own values.

My personal example is one case in which ethnocentricity’s bias might work in the reverse.

Sometimes, we see other’s values and norms as more “right” than our own. This may be one of those cases.

Most Westerners would never think to invite themselves over to a neighbor’s home, nor would they expect to accommodate a stranger. Even showing up on an acquaintance’s doorstep without a moment’s notice would be questionable.

Some Westerners might even choose to stay at a hotel rather than with family or friends when they’re visiting. Not only because they don’t want to impose on another’s space, but likely because they’d prefer their own space and privacy.

But most Westerners would surely see the value in such open-door hospitality. It’s universally a beautiful thing.

In Albania – and in other world regions that are less connected – there is no imposition and space is not valued as it is in the West. It would be a dishonor to the people if you rejected their hospitality.

Ethnocentricity in Albania

As I’ve highlighted, hospitality is a deeply entrenched value in these regions.

With that bit of background in mind, imagine Albanian researchers studying cross-cultural differences.

The researchers, no doubt, would consider the hospitality-index as an important cultural categorization.

Generosity and accommodation are the glue that holds society together in their minds, allowing communal ties and free travel.

Should they research other country’s hospitality norms and values, they would find other’s hospitality doesn’t meet the same standard as theirs.

They might see that in some countries unconditional hospitality is restricted to those one knows well. Strangers can find somewhere else to eat and sleep.

In other countries, only family members are provided with hospitality.

And in some, forget it. You have to find your own accommodation.

During their research, the Albanians might then conclude that their own country is on the higher end of the spectrum when it comes to the hospitality index. And they would view this as a positive thing, as their values are validated.

This is just one example of how ethnocentrism might influence research. It comes naturally to most. Even professional researchers and experts in the field, no matter how objective they attempt to be, will inevitably reveal their own values when evaluating other cultures.

How Do Canadian Social Norms Reflect Their Cultural Values?

Say, you and your friend, Canadian Jim, go for a coffee.

You arrive at the Tim Horton’s door at the same time.

“Oh, sorry,” he says, as he jumps ahead to open the door for you.

“Sorry?” you think. “What is he apologizing for?”

Canadians are known to be polite and to apologize for the slightest infringement. This is their social norm.

In fact, a McCaster University geo-linguistic study regarding the differences between American and Canadian language on social media found that Canadians are much more upbeat and polite in their language even online.

For nine months in 2015, PhD Candidates Daniel Schmidtke and Bryor Snefjella compiled upwards of three million tweets. Aside from “hockey and “eh”, “disproportionately ‘Canadian words’ included ‘great’, ‘amazing’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘favourite’,” while most of the American favorites were unprintable and/or negative, like “‘hate’, ‘hell’, ‘tired’, ‘hurt’ and ‘annoying’.”

This begs the question…

Why Are Canadians Polite?

What is at the root of their behavior?

The values of kindness and courtesy are.

The director of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto, Nelson Wiseman, theorized why these values are so embedded in Canadian culture:

“John A. Macdonald called Canadians a subordinate people. That’s in part because we’ve had a strong tradition of centralized regimes, with the French, and then as a British nation.”

European settlers, particularly the conservative British Tories, imparted these values unto their ancestors.

“Although Canada is no longer a British nation,” Wiseman said, “these tendencies replicate and perpetuate themselves like a gene.”

The non-confrontational tradition carries on. Apologizing before things get out of hand – even for nothing approaching insulting, like failing to open the door for someone – is the visible part of their culture (a baobab branch), while common courtesy and conservatism are the invisible parts (the roots of the baobab).

The fact that Canada doesn’t have the same imperial history as America may also factor into why Canadians are considered friendlier when compared to those south of the border.

Understanding the Cultural Baobab

When you enter into a culture that is not your own, familiarizing yourself with their cultural baobab will always help you come to terms with differences. The norms that you see are often deeply rooted in values that lie below the surface.

And it’s only when you examine the components of this tree of life that you start to understand the rationale of a culture.

You may not agree with it.

You may not like it.

But in understanding it, you may accept the culture’s values as they are.