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

This rather extreme example captures something of the social dynamics in a high relational mobility environment. It also demonstrates to an extent the difference between residential and relational mobilities: if your secret crush has to move cities because their new job requires it (an example of residential mobility), there’s likely little you can do about it. But if it’s just a matter of how much freedom your secret crush has to choose who they’ll end up hooking up with ( relational mobility), now that’s something you can try to do something about. Note that the concept of relational mobility is not only limited to romantic relationships, but is also relevant to friendships, business contacts, group memberships etc.

Let’s now move on to strategies involved in the adaptive tasks of the acquisition and retention of beneficial relationships in a high relational mobility society. Here, we will briefly mention strategies in three domains: self-enhancement, general trust, and self-disclosure.

First, a high level of positive self-regard (a high level of self-enhancement) will help people in high relational mobility societies achieve their goal of acquiring desirable relationships (Falk et al., 2009). Think about if the opposite was true: If you think you’re not worthy of the attention of others around you, this is likely to affect your willingness to approach desirable others, and this might mean you miss valuable relationship opportunities. In an open market of interpersonal relationships, it’s better to have a positively biased perception of your self-worth – that is, better to self-enhance – as this will act as a booster for interacting with and making the most of all those opportunities to meet increasingly beneficial friends.

In low relational mobility social contexts, however, high self-regard is only courting relational danger: It may end in unwanted status competition within groups, causing disharmony. Also, if a person starts thinking they’re the bearer of highly valued traits, they may just end up being dissatisfied with their current unambitious friends. Overall, in such contexts it is better to avoid offence by making sure that you downplay your greatness and stay out of the spotlight.

Secondly, in high relational mobility societies, a high belief in the benevolence and goodwill of strangers (a high level of general trust) will help people to approach potential new friends (Yamagishi & Yamagishi, 1994). Once again, think of the opposite for a moment: Every day you come in contact with people who could possibly be your new best friend wi

th great benefits, but you hold the belief that all strangers are out to harm you. With this mindset, how will you be able to approach those potentially great new friends? By developing a high level of general trust in others however (and a keen sense of who is trustworthy and who is not), a person can break free from safe, committed social relationships and explore other possibilities.

In contrast, research has shown that general trust is lower in low relational mobility societies. Scholars argue this is because people simply have no need to develop the ‘skill’ of general trust in low relational mobility societies (Yamagishi & Yamagishi, 1994). Relationships are long lasting and stable, with strong social rules within groups. Group members keep an eye on each other, making sure people pull their weight and don’t take advantage of others. In this sense, people can rest assured that in-group members won’t take advantage of them. There is, however, less need for trust in strangers (that is, general trust) in low relational mobility environments: Why develop a skill that just opens a person up to the potential of being taken advantage of by outsiders?

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