on friendship

i am decades behind what someone my age should know about friendship and social relationships in general, so much of this will not be new to most of you. Nevertheless, we often forget and need a good reminding now and then. I’ve recently learned two things about friendship:

First, friends have to push their friendships along instead of waiting for them to happen. I’ve too often tried to be as neutral as possible with everyone and let my friends decide what they wanted to do. I now realize that it is healthier to sometimes just say what you want and try to get your friend to do it (“do please come”) – especially if that friend is not opposed to your suggestion, but only double-minded about it. The principle behind this is probably nothing more than: “do not try to be what you are not”. Just letting things happen often results in no one being very enthused about the end result; at least one person should be excited to start out with. Pretending not to care when you really do is not only unhealthy but, in some sense, a little lie.

Second, friendships across large cultural divides are very dangerous because they are very difficult to interpret. I have thought people here in india were my friends (and they probably were) but suddenly lost that friendship because of what appeared to be a trifle. The problem is that neither of us knows how the other person views the relationship; we assume the other person is in line with our own thinking when the relationship is in fact asymmetrical. I know of no other solution to this problem than to be very very careful and avoid assuming anything beyond what you can know for sure (sounds like the scientific method). Sadly, this implies remaining emotionally aloof from all new types of relationship. Is there another solution?

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7 Comments to “on friendship”

  1. point number one is sound in my opinion.

    point number two is questionable. one way of making sure that both people are on the same page is to verbalize feelings. if the other person does reciprocate, then you know your relationship is asymmetrical. the problem with my solution is that only works 1. for people from an open communication type culture, 2. for people who have a certain amount of self-awareness, confidence and maybe even maturity.

    in general, cross-cultural relationships are exponentially more complicated than relationships between two members of similar cultures. the difficulty lies in part in the fact that we can never completely abandon our cultural perspective and understand someone else’s. i’m not even sure we would want to do that because our essence, our personality is intrinsically connected to our culture and background. that being said, cross-cultural relationships also have an exciting, refreshing dimension to them and help stretch our perspectives and understandings. i think i’m saying lots of things, none of them really helpful…

  2. I like what jjl said. I just want to add that I’ve found intercultural relationships difficult too and arrived at the somewhat unhappy conclusions Michael voiced.

    I followed an intercultural partnership to Taiwan and have lived here for a number of years, am fairly fluent in Chinese, and … well it’s just really, really hard to communicate and build intimacy and depth of understanding.

  3. An indian friend of mine who has lived many years in the US now has suggested that the greatest hurdle tends to be posed by people who think they are culturally modern, but in fact know only one culture and have acquired their supposed openness from american movies. Such people actually only know one culture and are mostly incapable of thinking outside of it (though they think they can and do). You are thus brought to assume that you understand them, though there will always come a point where the multiculturalism stops and pure 100% indigenous culture takes over.
    I’ve known a number of indians now and gotten to know a few of them moderately well. But in the end, the acquaintance has always remained cognitive and has never successfully moved to an emotional level. I think for a great part this can be attributed to the fact that the indigenousness begins in earnest with the low-level emotions, something that superficial americanization does not reach.
    I guess that i am implying that emotions are culturally interpreted if not shaped and that this is the last level to multiculturalize itself.

  4. Cultural openess is a personal issue to talk about. People all over the world understand one basic culture…the one they were brought up in ; not necessarily what they were born into. It’s through experience and exposure that they come to acknowledge and accept variations of the same.

    If someone says that Indians have a superficial idea of their own openess to the American culture, its probably worse on the other side as Americans have an even more distorted idea of the huge amalgative culture that India today represents. (I doubt Americans watch that many Bollywood flicks or even a single one for that matter)
    Because if you delve deep, cinema is probably the strongest culture promoting medium only surpassed by literature.

    Cultural openess and its embracing is not subjective to language or ethnicity barriers. Having lived in two countries, I believe that cultural bonding is totally dependent on the people pursuing it and the sincerity level they pursue it with.

    Every relationship needs to be nurtured, passiveness, submissiveness and taking the person on the other line for granted would hardly be nurturing factors. You have to put in work, your sincerity, your trust and above all your love for the other person. It’s not that difficult, not just easy either……and it doesn’t with a statuaory warning or user’s manual…..

  5. I’m not sure about cognitive and emotional and multiculturalised — I have difficulty thinking about how to theorise things at this level: it is pretty close to the bone — but I think I agree with you.

    There are some deep, intimate, close patterns that are hard to share. I feel that my Mandarin is very fluent. (I could take a graduate degree in Mandarin.) But I lack all sorts of other patterns that connect me to the local culture — and they lack the patterns that I have and want in my friendships.

    I want to say that there is a level of engagement that is deeper than culture, a basic level of what is needful and delightful that is widely shared. I have found myself able to connect deeply with older people who have set aside most of culture and just enjoy a nice meal and a pleasant conversation. There I think there is real connection. But with most people it is very difficult.

    I think what Cultural Junkie said is right as far as it goes but in my own experience — and I’m in the midst of having a cross cultural relationship fall apart in the midst of a crisis that my Taiwanese partern and I are approaching very differently — effort is often not enough.

  6. Cultural Junkie does have a point: that if both people really want to make the relationship work, then they will probably be able to – though only if they are both multi-culti.

    But i must agree with S. that “there are some deep, intimate close patterns that are hard to share”. I have myself messed up (what i thought) was a friendship here in india with a person who i thought (and who herself probably thought that she) was culturally open. It turned out that we both completely misinterpreted the relationship. To make things worse, culture came into play and itself forbade that we work things out (the person has severd all communication – because that’s apparently what u do in her culture).

    So you can indeed try hard, but there remains a double problem of interpretation: (1) you might have misinterpreted how the other construed the relationship and be too culturally blind to even realize this or (2) one of you might make a mistake that is interpreted as innocuous by one of you but as very serious and thus relationship-altering (unforgivable) by the other.

    If either of these two situations arise, i don’t see how ‘trying hard’ would ever fix anything. Though you’ll hopefully learn and not make the same mistake twice!

    Also, i like the thought that “there is a level of engagement that is deeper than culture”. This sounds hopeful. If this level is deeper than culture, it is perhaps a matter of personnality. Perhaps people with very similar personalities (and thus intuitions) just hit it off and are best friends within minutes because they understand one another at this deeper, instinctive level that bypasses the more cognitive and social arena that is culture.

  7. Another aspect is accepting that things can hurt you. Pain is human and avoiding it at all costs is unhealthy (having a hand burn of level 2 prevents you from losing your hand by leaving it in the fire or on the stove…). One has to learn how to deal with what makes one suffer. Not necessarily to accept it, it can be to fix it. But you can’t avoid the process. Ibuprofen helps your head pain but the tumor will eventually kill you.

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