How to win (and lose) friendships across cultures: Why relational mobility matters

Making and keeping friends: Strategy matters

Friendships can be tough work. Whether it’s making them or maintaining them, friendships usually require effort. If you’re from a Western country, this likely involves trusting and relying on others, and confidently communicating your strengths and your struggles. Let’s call these your strategies for relational success: Let people know what sort of friend you are, and you’ll increase your chances of finding and keeping a desirable friend.

For a moment, however, imagine you’ve been shipped off to another country like Japan. Suddenly you’re in a new, unfamiliar environment, and it’s time to make new friends. Right away, you would probably begin your tried-and-true techniques for making friends. Unfortunately, your efforts may not go down too well: You may find yourself not liked much, and you may only end up offending and alienating people around you. Suddenly you’re alone, unhappy, and rather confused. Why have your tried-and-true strategies for friendship success failed?

We argue this is because your personal strategy for relational success is only valid under social contexts common in your country. In particular, your typical strategy – being confident and forward – is only effective in social contexts where people have an abundance of opportunity and freedom to select who they interact with, which is a characteristic of many Western societies. That is, societies where there is a high level of relational mobility. Let’s take a closer look at why this is the case, and, more importantly, what alternative strategies exist.

The force behind which relational strategies work, and when: Socio-ecology

First, the fundamental concept at play here is the general idea that what kind of behavior is optimal – or, adaptive – in any particular situation depends on the nature of the social context in which a person finds themselves. This idea is called the socio-ecological approach  to human behavior and psychology. And yes, the ecology bit has some parallels with natural science.

Think back to high-school biology class for a moment. In nature, plants and animals adapt and respond to their natural environment (their ecology) in order to flourish. In a similar way, the socio-ecological approach to variation in human behavior states that in order to flourish, humans adapt their behavior (both consciously and unconsciously) according to their surrounding physical and social environment (Oishi & Graham, 2010).

Historically, of course, a broad body of research has already uncovered cultural differences in mindsets and shared beliefs that impact how people in different countries feel, think, and behave. Examples of these differences in cultural mindsets and beliefs include individualism  and collectivism (e.g. Triandis, 1995) independent  vs. interdependent cultural self-construals (Markus & Kitayama, 1991), and analytic vs. holistic  modes of thought (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001). However, behind the recent resurgence in the interest in the socio-ecological approach is a growing subset of researchers who feel that something has been left out from many of the current mainstream theories of cultural differences.

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