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

How does the socio-ecological approach differ? Recent researchers who take a socio-ecological approach (see Yuki & Schug, 2012, for a review) acknowledge that mental processes and shared beliefs (what goes on inside people’s minds) are important for understanding cultural differences in behavior. However, they also argue that the ‘lost’ tradition of acknowledging the impact of objective social and physical ecologies outside of people’s minds have been put by the wayside in recent decades (see Oishi, 2010), despite a rich history in earlier years of cross-cultural psychology (e.g, Berry, 1976). They argue that realities outside people’s minds might directly affect how people behave as well as impact internal mental processes – sometimes referred to as ‘mental shortcuts’ to the most beneficial behavior in any given situation (see Yamagishi, 2011).

Relational mobility: A socio-ecological concept

As mentioned above, we argue that relational mobility is a key factor in determining what friendship strategies will be effective in any particular social environment. And here it is important to note that relational mobility is a socio-ecological concept – an external social reality – which refers to “thedegree to which a particular society or group provides individuals with opportunities to choose relational partners based on their personal preferences” (Yuki & Schug, 2012, p. 137). Let’s unpack that mouthful.

Characteristics of LOW relational mobility social environments

Traditionally, human societies – such as small-scale tribal societies – tended to be low in relational mobility, characterized by relatively ‘closed’ interpersonal networks and stable group memberships. In social circumstances like these, interpersonal relationships (friends and acquaintances etc.) are generally defined by existing social network structures (like hierarchies and histories of social groups, and work, school, and community groups in more recent times). In short, in a low relational mobility environment, people tend to stay in long-standing relationships and groups, and it is hard to change them if they want to.

Researchers have pointed out that nowadays these characteristics are still prevalent in East Asian cultural regions such as Japan and China (Falk, Heine, Yuki, & Takemura, 2009; Schug, Yuki, Horikawa, & Takemura, 2009; Wang & Leung, 2010; Yuki & Schug, 2012) and also in Western Africa (Adams & Plaut, 2003). If we zoom in a little closer, however, some regions within a country may be lower in relational mobility than others: rural regions, for example, tend to be lower in relational mobility than big cities (Yamagishi, Hashimoto, Li, & Schug, 2012).

Characteristics of HIGH relational mobility societies

In contrast to low relational mobility societies, high relational mobility North American societies such as the US and Canada have histories which involve relatively recent and drastic movement of populations. Researchers tentatively suggest that all of that movement of people may have caused those North American societies to end up being higher in relational mobility (Oishi, 2010). Big city urban areas also tend to be higher in relational mobility, compared to rural areas. In such societies and social environments, opportunity and freedom abounds to select friendships based on personal preference (Adams & Plaut, 2003; Schug et al., 2009).

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