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

Put simply, a high relational mobility environment is an environment where people have a high degree of freedom to meet and freely associate with strangers, and can (relatively easily) leave their current relationships according to their own preferences. Note the emphasis here on freedom and ability to select and move between relationships; this emphasis makes it different to residential mobility (see this issue). Whereas residential mobility is all about the actual movement of people, relational mobility is primarily concerned with the potential or ability of movement between relationships. The two are related, but have different implications for behavior, as we describe below.

The effects of relational mobility on behavior and thinking

To date, scholars have shown that relational mobility can explain a host of cultural differences such as similarity between friends (Schug et al, 2009), what determines happiness (Yuki, Sato, Takemura, & Oishi, 2013; Sato & Yuki, 2014),  levels of self-disclosure (Schug, Yuki, & Maddux, 2010), shame (Sznycer et al., 2012), confidence in one’s own abilities (Falk et al., 2009), and of trust in others in general (Yamagishi & Yamagishi, 1994; Yuki et al., 2007).

But how does this all relate to strategies for friendships? That is, how does relational mobility affect which friendship strategies will and won’t be optimal in a given social context? To answer this, we now need to look at what socio-ecological researchers refer to as ‘adaptive tasks (or goals)’ required for human flourishing in differing levels of relational mobility. After that, we will look at some of the strategies people use to achieve those adaptive goals.

Adaptive tasks and strategies in low relational mobility societies

Considering the closed, committed nature of interpersonal relationships in low relational mobility social contexts, the primary adaptive task in environments like these is to maintain harmony within one’s existing relationships. Why? Because disharmony means you’ll either: 1) be eternally stuck in an awkward disharmonious relationship or 2) be rejected and face the daunting task of having to form new friendships in a society where alternative options are scarce.

Research to date has uncovered a number of strategies people use to achieve the low relational mobility ‘adaptive task’ of maintaining harmony. People may be aware of these strategies and purposefully apply them in their everyday interactions with people. Or, people may just adopt these strategies unconsciously. Here, we will talk about one illustrative behavior, avoiding offence, and the emotion of shame.

A good strategy to employ in order to maintain harmony is to avoid offending others. Toshio Yamagishi and his colleagues (Yamagishi, Hashimoto, & Schug, 2008) argue this is because in low relational mobility societies, like Japan, people generally belong to long-lasting, tight-knit relationships, and they have a relative lack of opportunity to obtain new relationships. In such a society, they argue, it is in people’s interest to make sure they don’t ruffle feathers. After all, if you offend a friend, you may either end up stuck in a disharmonious relationship, or worse, get yourself rejected and struggle to make new friends.

Of course, offending others in a high relational mobility society is likely to elicit the same results: possible disharmony and rejection. But since there are an abundance of other relationship options in a high relational mobility social context, the cost of being rejected is lower. At least there is always the option to find some new friends.

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