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

Linked to this strategy of not offending others are cultural differences in how likely people are to experience the emotion of shame. Sznycer and colleagues define shame as “an emotion that evolved to deal with the risks and consequences of social devaluation” (Sznycer et al., 2012, p. 354). That is, if someone feels shame, they can immediately adjust their behavior to avoid being thought of badly by, or offending, their peers. Shame therefore acts as an ‘alarm bell’ of sorts, motivating the person to adjust their behavior. In high relational mobility environments, however, the emotion of shame is not as common. After all, people in high relational mobility environments can more easily replace relationships, so the cost of social devaluation in friendships is not as high.

Extra info box 1 – Pick a pen, any pen...

People in low- relational mobility societies try not to offend others. Yamagishi and his colleagues demonstrated this nicely through a simple cross-cultural experiment (Yamagishi, Hashimoto, & Schug, 2008). By giving people in the US (high relational mobility society) and Japan (low relational mobility society) a choice between a relatively scarce and unique pen, and an ordinary pen, Yamagishi showed that when people didn’t know if they were the first or last to choose, Japanese people were more likely than Americans to choose the ordinary pen. This was despite Japanese actually having a preference for the unique pen (a finding in itself which contradicted previous research (see Kim & Markus, 1999)). Yamagishi and his colleagues argued that despite their preference for a unique pen, the people from low relational mobility Japan chose the ordinary pen because they were concerned they might prevent others from being able to indulge in their preference (and thus causing offence).


Adaptive tasks and strategies in high relational mobility societies

This emphasis on maintaining harmony in low relational mobility societies may sound unappealing, especially to readers from high mobility worlds. The reality is, however, that people living in high relational mobility societies have challenges of their own.

Previously, we saw that in high relational mobility social environments, people have a high degree of freedom to choose friends and acquaintances based on their personal preference. In such social contexts, scholars argue the most important adaptive tasks are the acquisition and retention of beneficial relationships (Yuki & Schug, 2012).

The importance of acquiring and retaining beneficial relationships might be easier to understand if we think of a high relational mobility society as an open market for interpersonal relationships. Humor us for a moment and imagine that a group of your friends have dragged you along to a speed-dating gathering. In the group, however, is that friend whom you’ve secretly had a crush on but never had the nerve to ask out on a date. In that speed-dating situation – an open marketplace for potential romantic partners – there would be very few limitations on whom you can interact with. You might come in contact with any number of interesting, socially attractive people, some of whom might be even more appealing than your current secret crush. Remember, though, your secret crush is also coming into contact with a number of socially attractive people. In an open market like this, therefore, you should probably be focused on 1) keeping an eye out for potentially new and better relationship options (acquisition), and 2) making sure your secret crush doesn’t ditch you for someone else (retention).

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