Are Americans ‘Bad Friends’?

cast of first season of the TV show Friends

 

I’m often the token American in a group of friends, which means I frequently field questions about the inner thoughts and motivations of the “typical American”. This is tough because one, I’m not a typical American, (the fact that I’m writing this from Japan is proof of that) and two, I don’t know what a typical American is. It’s difficult to make blanket statements about the attitudes and behaviors of Americans, because it’s such a large and diverse country. I grew up in Hawaii and then moved to New York in high school (which might as well have been another country for all of the similarities the two places shared), so I’m usually hesitant about making generalizations.

But today I was once again confronted with an American stereotype that I just had to share.

I went hiking with a group of Tokyo University students. It was a mix of Japanese and foreigners and funnily enough, the topic of conversation fell on friendships and specifically, friendships with Americans.

People commented on the fact that Americans often “come on very friendly” in the beginning stages of a friendship and then sort of disappear. They also mentioned that even close friendships with Americans are very difficult to maintain. If you don’t see the American for a while there tends to be an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude and those friendships eventually peter out.

This is not news to me. My French and German friends have often similarly lamented about how “American friendships can be horribly superficial.”

This was difficult for me to comprehend at first. How can a society of 300 million people be awful at making and maintaining close friendships? How is it possible for that to be a trait of an entire culture? I found this assertion to be so baffling that I even conducted research for a statistics class on the topic of cross-cultural friendships in order to gain a better understanding of it.

My research findings were inconclusive (the research sample was too small and limited) but even so, I did interview over 200 university exchange students and found that they all said the same thing:

“Americans are open and easy to get to know… but only to an extent.”

“It’s difficult to get past being just an acquaintance.”

“They’re really lousy at keeping in touch.”

“If you move away, the friendship dies.”

Now to what extent this is all true, I don’t know. But true or not, it’s interesting that so many people believe it to be.

I think a lot of it comes down to a cultural misunderstanding.  A lot of the people I talked to (both for the research study and just conversations between friends) were from far more reserved countries (like Germany or Japan, for instance) and they often sited the example of the fact that American’s ask “How are you?” but are never interested in hearing a genuine answer (if they are even listening to begin with), as an example of how superficial they are.

I think this is due in part to the fact that there is no equivalent in Japanese and German to the “How are you?/Fine, thank you”.  People don’t enquire as to your mental or physical health during polite, everyday conversation in these languages at quite the same rate as is done in English, so they aren’t familiar with the practice. I think that probably from a non-native English speaker’s perspective, this could easily be interpreted to mean that the speaker isn’t interested.

American culture is a culture of “stranger friendliness” which doesn’t exist in many other countries.  It’s not uncommon to get into informal conversations about sports or your dog with the man bagging your groceries or the woman behind you in the post office line. And I think this friendliness can often be misinterpreted by non-Americans as a desire for a more meaningful relationship.

I used to invite exchange students from high school and college over to my family’s house for dinner or for the holidays. With a few exceptions, I mostly did this because I didn’t want them to have to spend the holidays cooped up an empty college dorm. But to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t interested in sharing anything other than a turkey dinner.  Did this make me superficial?

Maybe to a culture where this isn’t the norm, yes.

Today, someone posed the question to me:

“Could you call up an American friend you hadn’t seen in five years and ask to stay at his or hers house?”

I answered uncertainly: “Well you could, but that’s not generally done.”

And from my experience, it isn’t.

I remember when I moved from Germany, my friends told me jokingly. “Oh, don’t even bother giving me your email address. We both know that in five years, you’ll have forgotten who I am.  Americans never stay in touch!”

At that point in my life, I couldn’t imagine living without those people. And as I tearfully said goodbye, I told them all resolutely that “Of course I’ll keep in touch! I’ll be back in six months! I promise!”

That was three years ago.  And with the exception of one person (whom I haven’t seen in over a year), I haven’t seen or spoken to any of them since then.

So maybe I am a ‘bad friend’.  I guess the question that remains is, how much does that have to do with the fact that I’m also an American?

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Comments ( 33 )

  1. Tokyo Cowgirl

    Another great post!

    You made several salient observations and posed a few questions. I wonder though, how many "typical" Americans have foreign friends living abroad?

  2. Reannon

    I don't know. Not many. Where are they going to get the opportunity meet foreigners abroad? Isn't the statistic something like only 25 percent of Americans hold passports? And the reason it's as high is it is, is because they made it a requirement for entering Canada.

  3. Kelsey in Japan

    That's odd that some Japanese ppl view Americans this way? I always felt like Japanese ppl fit this stereotype. I have "friends" that will suddenly change their email and not tell you because we haven't met in a year. Or they will say "Let's hang out" but really not meaning it at all. Hummm. Confusing. Anyways, love your blog!

  4. Reannon

    Hi Kelsey, I def think people say the same thing about Japanese people. While I don't have any experience of this happening, my friend says it's because Japanese people (and I guess this makes them similar to Americans) can be friendly and hospitable towards people at first, (especially someone who's a 'guest' in their country) but they're not really looking to become a close friend. They're only looking to keep it at a superficial level.

    This is what a friend told me...again, I really don't know since having a friend 'break up with me' (which I read about on Julie's site - wow, that was so interesting. I'd never heard of it before then) isn't something that has happened to me...yet.

    I think it prob all comes down to a different definition of friendship. I also found through interviewing people in college, that most exchange students (as well as non-Americans living abroad) that out of any society, Americans had the most friends, but the fewest close friends. So while Japanese people (for instance) had fewer friends in general, they had more people they considered their 'best friends'.

  5. Anna

    hm. I never really thought about American friendships like that... But when you think about it, some friendships are incredibly superficial that America is famous far. Looking at the movies we watch, a lot of them lack the friends that those of other cultures would really want to be friends with.

    And the whole "hi, how are you" thing... like, that's one of the first things they teach you in foreign language classes; does that mean its superficial in their language when only yu say it ?

  6. Reannon

    Hi Anna,

    The people who felt that American's ask "how are you?" and aren't interested in the answer, mainly came from people from culture's where that isn't used to mean "hello", like it is in English. When we say "how's it going?" or "how are you?", it's just another form of greeting. We aren't actually expecting a real answer.

    But in some other cultures, they only ask "how are you?" when they actually want to know. Like as in, "You don't look so well. How are you? Are you feeling okay?" So it's used with less frequency.

    That's my theory, anyway.

  7. PushupYogi

    Hm. I have called up/met with people from way back; in my mind it really doesn't matter if its been a day or a decade. But I think I'm a bit of an exception... I have known of old friends who've come into town and who I'd have loved to meet but didn't call me... Do you think its a bit of an ego thing? ("Oh, i don't know if he/she would even remember me...") See what I mean?

  8. Lulu

    What a great blog you have and I just stumbled upon it today:)

    Interesting thought...I don't think that it's only Americans that are more superficial in making connections and maintaining friendships. File the characteristic of being flaky under "human nature", all cultures and countries all day long have travelers that are connecting and then forgetting about people...I've lived abroad for a few years too and now I've been back in the states for years and years. I think if there is a real sincere connection then the friendship sustains!

    Super cool blog--
    Lulu

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  10. Aarti

    One adaptation for me when I moved here was the 'call (way) ahead and set an appointment before visiting your 'friend''. For many other cultures the casual drop-in is part and parcel of warm and welcoming friendships. Without a doubt, many take undue advantage of this to annoying end results. On the other hand, Americans aggressively protect their self-interests and personal space and then are ironically depressed about feeling lonely. Chatting with Americans is very easy - never a breaking the ice problem. Deep friendships are however impossible when one is constantly calculating the cost-benefits to the self. Some measure of surrender and acceptance is an essential ingredient.

  11. Jack

    We are, but in some ways it is a vicious circle. I wouldn't blame Americans as much American society. How can you change or violate the mores of society? Nobody is interested in friends in the USA, not in any meaningful way. The majority of Americans have 1 or no close friends, which includes spouses. The way Americans consider friends is typically activity partner or familiar acquaintance. If you try calling a friend out of the blue, especially if they are "out of sight out of mind," then you're a hassle, and the invitation after 5 years would never fly here either. Like the old proverb goes, "There are plenty of acquaintances in the world; but very few real friends"

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  13. David

    HOLY CRAP! I've been perusing your blog for a little while now and it seems you've actually expanded on a few topics that I've been going over in my head for months. This idea of American woman feeling entitled and people not really taking the time to cultivate, at least, a real friendship is just so true! I'm glad it's been written about to be honest. Because of my own introversion, I thought I was just going crazy or something.

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  15. Albert

    All my real, genuine and true friendships were with non Americans, or recent arrivals to the U.S. who hadn't become Americanized yet. Just as American women are a poor choice for dating and marriage, Americans are a poor choice for friends. Basically, Americans only consider you their friend when you're the one who's doing everything their way. Most Americans will only be your friend if you let them constantly take from you. Plus, they will always expect you to be available for them when they need a favor, but will seldom reciprocate. In short, Americans are selfish and entitled.

  16. Jason

    Americans are big LIARS and full of deception. That is why they cannot get close to anyone, they will find out what lies beneath!

  17. Katherine

    Thank you for writing this, Reannon . All my life I've felt like an outsider with Americans. And ironically, I am one. Throughout my 23 years on this planet, growing up in a typical suburbia nightmare in Philly, and then moving to boston for school/work, I've drawn a few conclusions about my nationality being american, and that is, I am proud on some things being an American like our history and certain rights, BUT I am not proud about our stereotypes (which are unfortunately true in this blog). I do not want to sound pretentious when I say this, but there's not sugar-coating around it: There's a reason why I've never had an American relationship and a reason why I have very few american friends in general (most of my friends are not american.... there are reasons to my natural attraction to the unusual, foreign, or unknown since I'm a very creative person, it's my brain's stimuli, BUT personality-wise, I never fit in with my peers here....

  18. Kevin Velasco

    Thank you for sharing this article. It is much easier for me to form friendships with complete strangers outside the U.S. than it is for me to catch up with my American classmates from middle school, high school, and college.

  19. Brian

    American culture, more than many others, is focused on me, me, me. When people are focused on themselves, they rarely have time to worry about what you are doing, or even care. Living here I find myself always giving, but never receiving. It gets old. "Out of sight, out of mind" would describe many Americans. In my opinion the stereotype does have some merit, as do most stereotypes to some degree. Perhaps it's because most Americans are simply too busy to take 8 seconds to respond to that email. As a Canadian living in the USA for the past 20 years, I can't help but notice that my best friends are STILL up in Canada or people I've met on my travels. I have another friend from Canada who lives in Phoenix who spends her summers back in Ontario -- with her friends. Don't get me wrong, I love living in the States much more than freezing my a$$ off in "give your paycheck to the government" Canada and would never go back. My American income, most of which I actually get to keep, allows me to frequently visit my favorite part of Atlanta -- the airport. Funny, this is the second time my internet meanderings have lead me to one of your postings. If you are ever in Atlanta, look me up. As an American now, I probably won't respond unless you are offering to buy the drinks.

  20. C

    I don't understand American friendships either. I have a couple of nice acquaintances in America but all of my good/real/close friends are back home in Asia. It's surprising to me the inability to make deep connections with people here, and I've been in the US for about 9 months. It's a short period but I have met a lot of different people. I make this statement also based on two ladies I've gotten to know better than my other acquaintances. I share personal fears and experiences with them, and they do the same, and we build each other up. The funny thing is I still feel like they don't know me completely and that we are not 'close friends' as compared to my friends from home, while they tell me that I'm the closest friend they've ever had and that they're so grateful that our friendship is so strong! It's mind-boggling to me how they feel this way only because I listen, encourage, and share personal things about myself. It seems like this is not normal for Americans to do! In Asia, I can count so many people I have formed lasting connections with and have felt so much love for. It seems like Americans rely on relationships with significant others for this kind of understanding and meaning, which is sad to me. People in Asia seem more ready to be open and more humble than people in America. Is this true?

  21. Ksenia

    This is a very interesting post. And I can easily relate to most of the comments. Don't get me wrong, America is a great country and I honestly admire it for many reasons, but the way people perceive friendships here bothers me a lot. I am an exchange student, it's been a year since I came here and I am amazed how much effort you have to put into both developing and maintaining friendships here. A chart of American students regarding friendship (my experience only, very rough version :) : 90% - A bunch of people who I got to know but have never been able to form any sort of meaningful/ intimate conversations with. I see them every day, we joke around, talk about tests, weekends and stuff. Small talk friends. 9% - A very small group of people who I have had a real connection with and I have spent some quality time with: wonderful conversations, sharing personal life stories, joys, concerns, etc. However, most of this happens randomly. You see him/her at lunch - nice, you'll get to talk to each other. Otherwise, weeks might pass by and unless you take initiative and make a call or sth, no one will really bother too much. Puzzling and frustrating experience :( 1% - People who are both willing to develop true friendships and maintain them. Unfortunately, I have not had the privilege of meeting too many of those :) I remain hopeful though. But not too much. and I have to go back home soon anyways :/

  22. alice

    I completely agree with everything you are saying. I lived all around the world and currently reside in New York. I have never experienced such a difficulty in making true friends anywhere else. I have been living here now for 3 years and it is really painful to realize that all the people i met here are " good day" friends. I was lucky enough to be a part of a very close friend group that grew up together, but even they were fake to each other. It is very sad how everybody is soo superficial. I know this girl that every time she sees me she will say I look beautiful. I was very appreciative at first for her compliments but then realized that it was just a way to be superficially nice. They want kindness not honesty. Most of the americans have a very hard time handling real comments. It is very hard to have real conversation with people, or should I say real conversation with real people? It's just sad

  23. Reannon Muth

    Alice, I think you hit the nail on the head with "They want kindness not honesty." That's such a uniquely American trait. Good or bad, I think it's what attributes to a lot of the assumptions people have that Americans are bad friends. They're just too nice. Nice to the point of being phony. Interestingly enough, I found that the the Japanese "want politeness not honesty" which is probably equally bad (?)

  24. andy

    I'm American and I just can't stand people in general but especially Americans. Every American business owner I have ever worked for was into illegal practices to steal from consumers. Americans hate each other. Whites don't only hate blacks...they hate each other. And I especially hate American women who are the embodiment of selfishness, narcissism, shallowness, materialism, pettiness, self centeredness, arrogance, conceit, racism etc. Most of the American women I've met I've enjoyed treating them like the shit that they are. I always lie to them because being honest about my true financial condition is always a turn off to them so I always lie to them. I pretend I own several businesses and am an entrepreneur as this is the only way to get their attention since I'm only 5'7" tall. They only date men who are 6 feet and above so I make up for it by lying about my finances. Works almost every time as some of these bitches actually only go for tall white men who also treat them like the shit they are. I love it when I hear in the news that Americans got killed. America is a shallow nation with terrible values and I can't wait till the middle east and North Korea and Russia unite to bomb our worthless asses.

  25. Jack Thomas

    True. I am 21 years old, living in US for past 2 years and had seen quite bad situation over here. I had my extended family born (cousins) born and raised in US. They came to Europe 5 years back, when i was 15 along with their kids. I got too much involved with my cousin, he kept going after me and i we both enjoyed each other company for next 3 weeks (and i grew quite attached to him). Also i met him when he was 12 when i came to US for another week. But some time back, i had severe road accident in US and noone even came to see me in hospital. My cousin for whom i did a lot, did not even called me to ask how was I. I was deeply hurt how paranoid these people are. Had seen really bad days here, even if i truly believe it was Land of Opportunities.

  26. Tchingis

    Calling Americans shallow is giving them too much credit. Shallowness still implies a degree of depth. In my experience- they are mercenary, calculating shmoozers. Every single person I consider a friend is a recent immigrant or an internal exile like myself.

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  28. TDR

    I see a lot of truth to this and it is very eye-opening to see how foreigners view our approach to friendships. That said, I think I'm already a foreigner despite having never traveled very far abroad. I've had difficulty making connections with people my whole life and perhaps instead of judging it to be a flaw in my personality, maybe the truth is I'm just in the wrong society? I don't know. I have two very close friends whom I would die for without hesitation; however everyone else I know is just an acquaintance. I'm not sure how they do it in other countries, but for my part I only care to make friends with people who share the same interests I do. Otherwise what is the point? What is there to enjoy? It's kind of touching though that apparently foreign people desire friendships with us, but find us closed of. Makes you feel wanted, you know? :^)

  29. Sisi

    This is a very interesting discussion. Having lived in the US for 2 years from Ireland, I must admit I find it very hard to figure out how genuine American people are... Americans have got to be the friendliest, smiliest people I have ever met and it is very refreshing, but I do often wonder if it is only skin deep. Maybe it's just a run of bad luck for us with the people we have met but it often feels like Americans like to know how beneficial you will be now or in the future to them. I would love for someone to explain American culture.

  30. Stella

    I'm American but most of my significant romantic relationships and many of my friendships have been with non-americans. I do believe I was born in the wrong country or at least what this country has morphed in to. Americans tend to lump people into winners and losers and form their interpersonal connections based upon what they can "get out of it". I think this phenomenon is especially pronounced on the coasts. I live in NYC and cannot remember the last time that what I thought was an expression of interest in me as a person didn't turn into a case of who I know or what I can do for someone. I feel there is a brittle, superficial quality to interactions and you never really know where you stand. My husband is not American (southern european). Like me, he's a very open-hearted person and he has found it very difficult to connect to men here and the majority of his friends are in his home country. What he finds most disturbing is that in many cases, people don't seem ashamed at all to blow off a friend once he/she no longer proves to be useful. We're tired of beating our heads against the wall and, if we can manage, we may move to Europe in the next five years.

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  32. Ella

    Yes, you are definitely a bad friend by a european's standards. But it's not your fault. Europe, as you know, has only recently started to united socially - and with great effort and with little success as of yet. And this is the root to a deeper reason - europe has been the scene of two world wars and it has always had open conflicts (until very very recently) with great civilian life and material loss. US never had the territory in open conflict (except the pearl harbour incident which resulted in little civilian casualties). So what we have are peoples who lived under different strains. In Europe, people didn't use to travel and to move around for too much. Even changing towns in the same county was a very big deal. People were very connected to the land and inherently, to the people there. This resulted in long lasting friendships. My parents have life long friends - for over 40 years! with which they still stay in touch. US is not like this - i realised immediately when I got there. They move around a lot more, they don't have a feeling of belonging to the land they were raised and they don't really have a "home". I read a lot of US, European and Russian literature and the way people are portrayed are very different in US than the EU+RUS. I met American people but I would never consider them my friends even though they seem much more approachable than my 20+ old friends. But they seem like smoke to me. They always seem to me to be "what society sells" - so very nicely wrapped in big box presents that you are exhilarated by the image when you receive such a present... but once you open it... is a cheap Chinese toy bought on credit. Europeans care less about the image - my parents never wrapped my presents for christmas in big colourful boxes. They would just place the Encyclopedias and the chocolate bars under the tree directly. I gave a good though on this for a long time and I can say that from an Eastern European perspective, US people are very shallow and I don't trust them even after having lived in US and in other European countries. They are there with you for the good times - once it gets tough, they vanish (and send the drones :)) ).