American vs. Russian notions of friendship

by on July 14, 2011 at 7:06 am in Education, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

Not long ago I attended an evening-long discussion group on this topic, comprised mostly of Russian emigrants and their spouses.  The Russians were generally keen to argue that they have deeper and closer friendships than do the Americans.  They also dislike that Americans will call their acquaintances “friends.”  In response I noted that:

1. Relative to Americans, Russians are far more concerned with defining who is truly a friend, or not.  (Though Google+ may change this.)

2. Russians are far more likely to conduct purges of their friends.  (“A future enemy” is one good Eastern European definition of a friend, or so the joke goes, thanks to BC.)

3. American geographic mobility has been falling for some time and so we might move back toward some closer and more durable notions of friendship; social networks play a role here too.

Since that evening, I’ve formulated a new version of the question in my mind.  Putting aside the so-called “intelligentsia” (a Russian phrase, not one which comes quickly to my tongue), are Russian lower-middle class friendships so much more “life and death” than American lower-middle class friendships, especially among the immobile?  What if seven guys grow up together in Somerville, MA, never go to college or leave town, work in auto parts stores, and end up reminding you of characters in a Clint Eastwood movie?  Maybe they’re pretty tight, albeit with grudges and perhaps even purges along the way.

The new question is then this: why does the “treatment” of greater education have so much less affect on the nature of Russian friendships, relative to American friendships?  Are there other dimensions along which the treatment of education influences Russians less?  (Examples would be child-bearing age, taste in sports, taste in food, etc.)  Influences Americans less?  Other groups?

The Russian intelligentsia will be the first to insist how much education matters in their circles, but perhaps they doth protest too loud.

1 david July 14, 2011 at 7:11 am

A society in which personal relationships trump the (relative) anonymity of the marketplace or an independent state civil service, is also a society where friendship is more materially important.

2 Pierre-Louis July 14, 2011 at 7:15 am

I’m from Montreal but living in Europe for a while and Europeans of all nationlaities always mention that Americans don’t have “real” and “deep” friends. I don’t know enough americans to know whether on average this is true but I doubt it. Why wd americans be differetn from the rest of the world?

3 Dean Sayers July 14, 2011 at 9:29 am

I don’t think Americans are any different on a personal level. A lot of what I see among people I don’t know seems to confirm the “shallow friendship” theory of Americans, but I’m an American and I have almost exclusively close friendships. Of my friends and acquaintances, most of them make close friendships, too. I think the media has some culpability here. Consider this quote:

“The line was a ridiculously sexist interpretation of what a feminist thinks—something to the effect of “You’re my equal in bed, but that’s it.” … I said, “No, I don’t like the line. I find it repulsive, and my character would not say it.” Matt said, “Yes, she would say it. She’s hot to trot and to get her husband in bed with her, and give it to her like she wants it.” I replied that this was not what she would say or do: “It’s a castrating line that only an idiot would think to write for a real live woman who loves her husband, you cocksucker.””
Roseanne Barr: And I should Know

It took me some time for it to sink in, but I now know why so many shows come off as fake: people are writing them not experiencing them, and if you can’t convey a deeper sense of what someone is thinking than the writing will come off as trite and irrelevant. I think the same is true of how we watch people, personally: when I interpret what strangers think and do, my sense of their mindset is probably much more me than it is them.

4 JSK July 14, 2011 at 10:10 am

No, it is just that (most) Europeans reserve politeness for their close friends. Because Americans tend to be polite by default, Europeans think that they (Americans) try to friend everybody.

5 Andrew' July 14, 2011 at 10:22 am

“Why wd americans be differetn from the rest of the world?”

Trust is a big issue for Americans. When a female friend came over for a party I insisted on either a body scan or a pat-down. Obviously she had something to hide.

6 Rahul July 14, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Right you are. Germans love saying this too. They think Americans have superficial friends unlike Germans who make real ones. (This is all anecdotal, of course. n ~ 15)

7 joan July 14, 2011 at 7:30 am

If you live in a society where you must “cheat” the system to survive, knowing who your “true” friends are is important because everyone else will stab you in the back at the first opportunity.

8 Ecksoh Aitchteeaitch July 14, 2011 at 7:32 am

notions of privacy, and attendant laissez-faire attitudes (towards friends) perhaps stronger in america than in the olde worlde/states with a recent or longstanding history of secret police, friends informing on each other, etc.

9 Todd July 14, 2011 at 7:52 am

To all my droogs on MR: KAK DELA?

Possibly part of the perceived difference is the still imbedded reflex of Russians to push the “Our X is better than your American X” narrative that was an essential part of Sovietness for so many recent decades.

10 Michael Kogan July 14, 2011 at 7:53 am

This is mostly due to high levels of general inequality in American society and high levels of mobility. As people get older, even if they used to be friends when they were young, it’s hard to have a lot in common if they inhabit different social strata.

11 David Shor July 14, 2011 at 8:25 am

I think the answer is fairly mundane: Education, and life in general, is much more geographically centralized in Russia than it is anywhere else in the world. If you have a smart friend growing up with you in school, you’re both going to go to Moscow for school. And after you graduate, you’re both going to end up working in Moscow. (If you’re not in the highest rung, you’ll still end up going to the regional school and working in the regional capital, and so on.)

That was my personal experience living in Moscow for a year. All of the close friends I met had incredible stories about how they grew up together in their home city. And after they graduated, pretty much all of them ended up staying in Moscow.

In the US, things are different. We have good schools and major cities with good jobs everywhere. The probability that friends will get separated at every step is extremely high.

12 Cyrus July 14, 2011 at 8:30 am

Your close knit friendship is my clique.

13 Alison Cummins July 14, 2011 at 8:35 am

Oh Tyler, your privilege is showing!

A friend is someone with whom you exchange favours. If you wouldn’t help someone out with a bit of bureaucracy, or lend them your sofa for a party, then you aren’t their friend. If you wouldn’t ask them, or if they turn you down when you do, they aren’t your friend.

This understanding of friendship is much more salient when you have fewer resources and your infrastructure is less reliable.

*** *** ***
From another angle, my beloved is from the Netherlands, land of abundant resources and smoothly-running infrastructure. He claims that Americans have fewer close friendships than the Dutch because they only get two weeks holiday a year, so they have to rely on family for social needs.

14 JSK July 14, 2011 at 10:13 am

As a dutch person my self, we are quite happy to call a jogging partner a “friend”. The bar is somewhat low.

15 Enzo gryr npiamelHiua July 14, 2011 at 8:49 am

I wouldn’t read so much into it. Russian has two separate words for friend and friendly acquaintance. Lacking a specific term for friendly acquaintances in English, we use “friend” indiscriminately, or rather, we often qualify the word subtly through context, cadence or intonation in ways that non-native speakers might not pick up on.
And no, it’s not a case of linguistic relativity–you know, the Eskimos with all their words for snow. Russians will also insist–*insist*–that the sky is not “blue”, but “pale, celestial blue”, though I assure you it looks the same over there.
Also, as something of a middle-aged exile myself, I find it harder to forge deep friendships now than it was in the “old country”.

16 anonymous July 15, 2011 at 5:50 pm

There’s no mystery here. The language you speak will often determine whether you consider two colors to be covered by the same word or by different words. Many languages don’t really distinguish green and blue (see also the color term article in Wikipedia). One example given is that in Japan, the name for the green signal in a traffic light is the same as the word for blue.

Russian just happens to distinguish sky blue from navy blue and use different words for it. There is no deep psychological insight, no window into the Russian soul, to be gained from this arbitrary factoid, it just is what it is.

17 anonymous July 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm

In the US I think there’s an East Coast vs. West Coast phenomenon.

It seems that people on the West Coast are much more likely to use “friend” to refer to a mere acquaintance, with “personal friend” meaning an actual friend.

18 Cam August 5, 2011 at 10:52 am

Good point — and the linguistic difference can be within, not just between languages. As an example, when I lived and worked in Massachusetts, I was surprised to hear a colleague (who grew up in Boston) say of someone, “He’s a pal of mine, but I wouldn’t call him a friend.” I’m a Southerner, and I didn’t get the distinction — to me “pal” was synonymous with “friend”, or even signified a relationship closer than a mere friend.

19 Scott Miller July 14, 2011 at 8:53 am

Many Americans likely think that the term “acquaintance” is too impersonal. I disagree. A family member encouraged me to use the term rather than calling everyone a friend and it has been enlightening. It takes a long time for me to consider someone a friend. One of the keys was struggle through unemployment. Everyone knew (because of Facebook), but only the true friends called to see how I was doing, gave me encouragement, etc. Some of the others were purged.

20 Rahul July 14, 2011 at 2:00 pm

When I came to America I often felt that the phrase “just an acquaintance” was often used in a mildly derogatory sense.

21 rp July 14, 2011 at 2:45 pm

The two statements above are both true!

Therefore, the somewhat-ugly neologism “friendquaintance” is very useful.

22 Anton Tykhyy July 16, 2011 at 3:56 am

I shudder to think of a truly ugly neologism.

23 nelsonal July 14, 2011 at 9:08 am

One big difference I’ve noticed is that Americans (or at least Americans from the regions settled by Lutherans) are much more private than most cultures.

24 Dean Sayers July 14, 2011 at 9:17 am

“3. American geographic mobility has been falling for some time…”

Off topic, but this is an interesting point I hadn’t heard before. In the past, it had been argued to me that labor mobility trumps capital mobility in terms of “international referendums” on political and economic conditions (i.e., that nations and regions do more to cater to labor than capital). I think it’s clear that this isn’t the case for at least most of the world, but I wonder to what extent decreased mobility rolls back any gains that labor makes in this dynamic?

25 dearieme July 14, 2011 at 9:33 am

Could the problem be linguistic? I used to find the American expression “close personal friend” baffling until someone explained it in a blog. (I wish I could remember the explanation, mind.)

26 Andrew' July 14, 2011 at 10:22 am

A “close personal friend” is usually someone who is about to have a news story break about them that gets a politician in trouble.

27 k July 14, 2011 at 9:47 am

this statement is quite self revealing:

“Relative to Americans, Russians are far more concerned with defining who is truly a friend, or not. (Though Google+ may change this.)”

Many Indians, me included, feel the same way as Tyler’s Russian friends.

28 TGGP July 14, 2011 at 9:51 am

Crazy hypothesis: American education is intended to undermine most sources of loyalty and social support, just like the state.

29 Andrew' July 14, 2011 at 10:15 am

Intention or not, that’s the effect.

I would consider any ‘friend’ stupid who made education a filter for friend fitness, and unfit to have as a friend. At least after they discussed the issue with me.

30 Dean Sayers July 14, 2011 at 1:15 pm

I didn’t see anything about American education there. I get that you’re trying to say that it represents state interests, etc., but I don’t see where the specific criticism about undermining friendships applies.

In fact, Public schools follow the Russian trend marked above by David Shor:
“All of the close friends I met had incredible stories about how they grew up together in their home city. And after they graduated, pretty much all of them ended up staying in Moscow. “

Public school was the last time I was part of a group of the same people with a lot of contact for years. Private, or no school at all would be even more alienating in this regard.

31 Mike July 14, 2011 at 9:58 am

“Sometimes there is justice. Sometimes there is just us”.

I’m guessing that the more this phrase appeals to you, the more likely you are to have some very close friends.

32 Norman Pfyster July 14, 2011 at 9:59 am

I encountered a similar “American friendship is shallow” idea in Germany. It was tied to the experience that Americans are friendlier to strangers and casual acquaintances than a German would be, which seemed to signify a devaluing of true friendship with close friends.

You can also see a similar pattern in the reverse in the French word “ami,” which can connote a relationship that in the U.S. would have to be denoted as “more than friends.”

33 Andrew' July 14, 2011 at 10:12 am

“Friend” in America is like an future option whose value goes down as specification goes up.

34 Miley Cyrax July 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm

+1 for apt finance metaphor.

35 nelsonal July 14, 2011 at 10:17 am

I recalled an older article about personal zones and what’s allowed in a couple of cultures.
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/db51a45e-4472-11e0-931d-00144feab49a.html#axzz1Fp4ghsT3

36 NNM July 14, 2011 at 10:27 am

Further to Michael Kogan’s point:

In the US, the purpose of elite education is to place an individual on a trajectory that leads to improved social status and business success. It is designed to help people “lose” friends: the less ambitious, perhaps overly ethnic peer group of one’s childhood. Post-education, this set of friends is exchanged for a more useful set of “fake” friends in a society characterized by historically higher social mobility.

In Russia, the returns to exchanging real friends for fake friends are historically much lower.

You might argue that the 19th century criticism of the decadent West by Russian intellectuals and authors sprang from the same root. People like Dostoevsky were intuitively disgusted by a society in which human relationships were based primarily on usefulness for advancement.

37 Hondo69 July 14, 2011 at 11:09 am

In the most general of terms, people who live in poverty tend to maintain tighter knit groups than those who are more affluent.

38 actually July 14, 2011 at 11:15 am

I would think that most people would hold this against Americans, from Europeans to Russians to Asians. Whether this is true or not, is a different matter. We could always ask Facebook about the average number of friends people from different parts of the world have…

39 k July 14, 2011 at 1:35 pm

that wouldn’t do it, because facebook friends tend to be quite shallow even in an ancient culture such as India’s

which is itself worthy of comment

40 yeah July 14, 2011 at 1:52 pm

but the point would presumably be that americans have more fb friends, on an order of magnitude, which could mean that others are more strict about what they define as friend.

41 Tom July 14, 2011 at 11:20 am

As some others have said, Europeans, with the exception of probably only Ireland, are not very friendly to strangers. I guess when you see someone be friendly to most people, you assume they cannot have a deeper friendship with only a few.

42 dirk July 14, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Maybe there is truth to this. We tend to love the promiscuous less and sense they are less capable of love.

43 JasonL July 14, 2011 at 11:22 am

This idea of deeper friendships seems somehow entangled with honor cultures. I’m certain people in Appalachia would make similar claims against more cosmopolitan americans. I don’t know of a polite way to have that discussion.

44 PeterW July 14, 2011 at 11:31 am

“American geographic mobility has been falling for some time and so we might move back toward some closer and more durable notions of friendship”

I would be interested in hearing more about this, since I think that high geographical mobility has been a major contributing factor to the decline in American social capital. Anyone have cites?

45 Eddie July 14, 2011 at 11:58 am

I’m trying to remember where I read this, but this phenomena happens in the US as well. Some sociology research article somewhere. In regards to friendships in California vs. New York (I believe it was Los Angeles vs. NYC):

People in California are more likely to call someone a “friend” but their average relationship with that person is shorter. The larger a social circle, the less each individual unit matters.

And I can’t imagine Google+ will make that more of a difference than Facebook already has.

46 Andrew' July 14, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I’ve been fascinated by the Hollywood culture. When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt hooked up Jennifer Aniston said it was “uncool.” Uncool. That is not exactly how a woman in a trailer park would have characterized the situation.

47 Natasha Cowen July 14, 2011 at 12:16 pm

As I said to Tyler many times, the difference between Russian and American friendships is similar to the difference between love and casual liasons: in love you expect and are ready to give everything, in casual relationships you enjoy spending time with the person and like him/her but the expectations are rather low.

48 Natasha Cowen July 14, 2011 at 12:19 pm

As I said to Tyler many times, the difference between Russian and American friendships is similar to the difference between love and casual liasons: in love you expect and are ready to give everything, in casual relationships you enjoy spending time with the person and like him/her but the expectations are not that high.

49 IVV July 14, 2011 at 12:56 pm

I think that’s a great way to look at the difference, but I’d argue that the love-friend is just as likely to find in America as in Russia–they just might not be identified as such by language, to help obfuscate deepness of relationships (which can be construed as rude, and can result in potential benefits–yeah, this is all Hansonian Homo Hypocritus).

There’s an American phrase that might help to explain the difference: “Friends will help you move; best friends will help you move bodies.”

50 stalin July 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Russians are far more likely to conduct purges of their friends

Ha Ha is good joke. I got all my friends.

51 Marian Kechlibar July 15, 2011 at 3:50 am

+10

52 Khrushov July 15, 2011 at 8:23 pm

You are Georgian…

53 Barkley Rosser July 14, 2011 at 1:23 pm

While geographic mobility is decreasing in the US, it is still much higher than in most other countries. What is also decreasing and is now lower in the US than in many European countries is class mobility.

I think the casualization of friendships in the US emanates from California, a place traditionally of more footloose recently arrived people with few deep roots, although that may be changing. It was from there that the whole idea of calling random people by their first name when you meet rather than their last with a title emerged. There are jokes about how in CA one becomes a real friend when one learns another person’s last name.

Much of what has been said here is right. Centralization of elites in Moscow is a big deal. Also, this matter of in the ancien regime there was this real danger of people stabbing one in the back, so one had to be very careful about whom to trust with one’s real views of anything, only someone whom one could really count on for serious matters more generally. Others were to be kept at arm’s length.

One not so pleasant spinoff of these that those bragging about all those deep friendships in Russia (which also seem subject experiencing periodic purges, although those can be undone) is that people are in general very unpleasant on the street and in public places. Some can sneer at the CA/US tendency to “be friendly,” but it makes for more pleasant public interactions, with Western Europe tending to be somewhere between the US and Russia in how that works.

I also note the matter of age, which interacts with mobility and some other characteristics. It is just a lot harder to make those “really good friends” as one gets older. So indeed, geographic mobility does make it harder to make and keep those really good friends.

BTW, I do accept that there is something to this claim that Russians are more likely on average to be pickier but also more serious about their deep friendships than Americans on average.

54 Brent Royal-Gordon July 14, 2011 at 1:38 pm

And yet LiveJournal, with its one-way, indiscriminate “friendships”, is one of Russia’s most popular social networks.

55 albert magnus July 14, 2011 at 2:14 pm

With friendship, quantity is a quality all its own.

56 WillJ July 14, 2011 at 2:21 pm

“American geographic mobility has been falling for some time”

Wait, what? Really? Add me to the list of people who would be interested in some citations.

57 WillJ July 14, 2011 at 2:22 pm

“American geographic mobility has been falling for some time”

Wait, what? Add me to the list of people would like a citation.

58 Paul Johnson July 14, 2011 at 3:38 pm

OK, let me add my tiny data point. I walked out to the reception area and asked the Russian student who is a receptionist whether this is true. She said it’s “kinda true”. For example, that in the US, if someone is making bad personal choices, other people don’t want to seem like they are butting in on their friend’s personal business by telling them what to do. In Russia your friend will tell you straight out that you are being stupid.

59 A dude July 14, 2011 at 3:49 pm

The quote about a friend helping you move and best friend helping you move bodies is spot on. Semantics:
Russian “friend” = American “best friend”
Russian “acquaintance” = American “friend”

Also it’s the way societies are organized. In the US organized forms of business hierarchies are more advanced, with carreers taking over human lives.

Then there is afiliation — Russia (Europe, India, etc) is more homogenous – you have more overlap with others in spheres that define your identity. In the US it’s harder to find, and people’s identities are generally smaller. Here I define identity as the combination of things you think about on emotional level.

60 blacktrance July 14, 2011 at 8:00 pm

As a Russian immigrant to the US, I don’t think there’s much of a realdifference. The perceived difference is a combination of Russian nationalist sentiment, anti-Americanism, assuming TV shows are what America is really like, and differences in individual personalities and experiences.

I would also dispute the claim that higher education destroys friendships. If nothing else, it gathers people with more in common, which is conducive to friendship. If you disagree, imagine that instead of going to college you moved to a trailer park. Where would you have made better friends?

61 Jacob Felson July 14, 2011 at 11:43 pm

With regard to declining geographic mobility in America, I hadn’t heard this either but look at this:

http://madeinamericathebook.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/the-myth-that-never-moves/

62 Gwyan July 15, 2011 at 12:09 am

My experience of this is from the other end of the slavic world. I lived for six months teaching as a visiting professor in Croatia. There the striking thing was that education was not a divider. My colleague’s friends were not their fellow intellectuals, but were their childhood and teen friends, their neighborhood friends. A tight group of friends with, say, a professor, a ship builder, a fisherman, and a retail manager was very common. Both class, as I know it from my English upbringing, or from my California home, and education were completely subsumed by locality and history. Mobility in Croatia is very low. Those that grow up in Split often won’t consider a job in Zagreb (the only other big city in a small country), even though they are closer than Detroit is to Pittsburg. With low mobility, “friend” is a category that takes years to achieve.

63 Rahul July 15, 2011 at 12:44 am

What it does imply though that either social mobility is very high or that neighborhoods are very mixed (economically). In a lot of developing countries a kid who becomes a professor will never have lived next to one who becomes a fisherman.

64 Marian Kechlibar July 15, 2011 at 3:55 am

Interesting observation.

As for Czechs, there is a visible tendency of the smarter kids to move from most regions into Prague and Brno, which are the only two cities with decent universities (sorry, my native Ostrava…). They then tend to live in dormitories, where very intensive personal friendships come into existence (the general Czech tendency to sit down in pubs and chat while drinking beer is a strong motor of this). As a result, old friendships from the before-university time are lost, not least due to the physical isolation. Especially when many of the students who come to Prague or Brno never move back to their native regions.

65 Johannes July 15, 2011 at 9:57 am

There is tons of literature on this topic much of it going back to Blat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blat_(term)). A good start for reading is Ledeneva’s “Russia’s Economy of Favors: Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange.” Also, these 1990 phone interviews have a couple of interesting question on the topic: Hunting for Homo Sovieticus: Situational versus Attitudinal Factors in Economic Behavior. Robert J. Shiller, Maxim Boycko, Vladimir Korobov, Sidney G. Winter and Thomas Schelling Brookings. Papers on Economic Activity Vol. 1992, No. 1 (1992), pp. 127-194.

66 Barkley Rosser July 15, 2011 at 1:41 pm

I do not buy this story that the nature of Russian friendship is all about blat. There is plenty of blat that is just a matter of bribery and straightforward quid pro quos. Reducing Russian friendships to this is simply off, even if Russian friendships are often involved in blat, and usually blat deals are accompanied by such “friendly” activities as sharing a bottle or more of vodka, at least among men.

I think a crucial difference between Americans and Russians is that Russians are much more concerned with dividing the world up into clearly defined groups: there are the friends, and the rest are the non-friends, if not outright enemies, or at least people to be kept at a distance. In the US, there is more of a continuous spectrum from the nice acquaintance to the deep friend, without these clear dividing lines, which becomes the basis for Russians declaring that Americans do not have friends like they do, even though many Americans do have very real and deep friends. It also becomes the basis for this purging that the Russians do on their friends, which Americans are much less likely to do. We are more likely to simply demote somebody to a lower level of friend rather than tossing them out fully into the street, as it were.

I also think you are more likely to see Russian-style behavior in American middle schools, all this obsession with cliques and “best friends” and so on., although indeed many of the closest friendships do start when we are young, as I already noted.

67 Michael R. Brown July 15, 2011 at 4:14 pm

This might explain some of Ayn Rand’s personal history – with the purges and such.

68 Bo July 15, 2011 at 5:53 pm

This all is a total bull. In my personal observation “real friendship” exists primarily at time of adolescence and all but gone when people hit their 30s. What remains is the urge to get together to reminisce about “good old times” Since in US such gathering is reinforced with beer and in case of Russians much stronger Vodka the resulting imaginary willingness to “die for a friend” is perceived to be “much stronger”. Said that – it seems that average American male retains immaturity for much longer than Russian counterpart so it’s hard to say who wins

69 Barkley Rosser July 15, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Bo,

Some of those arguing about the deep nature of Russian friendships are women (see Natasha Cowen’s remarks). You are simply way off base here.

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