7.9 Billion Visions of Friendship

A couple of times over the last months, I had conversations with diverse groups about friendship in both personal and professional settings. It was incredibly interesting to observe how the cultural codes of every participant and group influenced their responses.

Friendship is a simple and understandable concept, isn’t it? 

Well, it is now. 

Too often, we start discussions around something that seems so obvious to us but might mean something totally different to others.

Friendship is a complex social phenomenon that is shaped by cultural norms, values, and practices. Different cultures have different expectations when it comes to friendships, and people understand “friendship” differently.

In some cultures, friendship is often based on individualism, where people tend to develop close relationships with a small group of people (or even only one person) who share similar interests and values. Friends are often considered equals and are expected to support each other emotionally and share deeply personal experiences.

In other cultures, friendships are often based on collectivism, where people tend to develop close relationships with a group of people. Friends are often expected to help each other with practical matters, such as finding a job or lending money, rather than emotional support.

Trust, without which friendship will rarely exist, also has been built differently across cultures.

In some cultures, trust is built through business-related activities. Relationships are built and dropped easily, based on the practicality of the situation. “You do good work consistently, you are reliable, I enjoy working with you, I trust you.”

In other cultures, trust is built through sharing meals, having evening drinks, or visiting the coffee machine. Work relationships build up slowly over a long-term period. “I’ve seen who you are at a deeper level, I’ve shared personal time with you, I know others well who trust you, I trust you” (E.Meyer, The Culture Map).

In some cultures, there are gender-based differences in the expectations and norms of friendships – men are expected to develop close friendships with other men, while women are expected to prioritize their relationships with their families or other women only.

In some cultures, friendship is viewed as a form of extended family, where people develop close relationships with their friends and treat them as if they were part of their own family. In other cultures, friendships are often based on shared activities and interests, such as sports or hobbies.

“Friendship expectations” vary widely across cultures, and it is no wonder that when expectations fail and needs are not met, disappointment follows, and conflict often arises.

Now, let’s move to our workplaces.

There are probably thousands of articles written on the increased importance of developing friendships with colleagues. Gallup has repeatedly shown that having best friends at work is key to employee engagement and job success. We know this on a personal level, but do we ever consider that our people (especially those who are diligently brought together into diverse teams) might not know how to build friendships across cultures? 

As someone who works with internationally educated professionals, I often observe that the “friendship question” can be challenging for many individuals.

To often I hear stories like:

  • “She appeared to be friendly, but when I confided in her about my husband’s challenges, she disappeared from my life.”
  • “I assisted a girl I met at an event, and now she invites me to all of her family gatherings. I feel uneasy declining her invitations and worry that I might offend her.”
  • “All the touchy-feely aspects of friendship seem strange to me. Should I bring this up with my HR department?”
  • “I believed I could trust him when I assigned him that project. However, he could not differentiate between where our friendship ended and where business began, and it turned into a disaster.”
  • “I thought she was my friend, but she never opens up to me. Our relationship feels one-sided.”
  • “They promised to support me and appeared friendly, but it led to nothing. They picked me up from the airport, dropped me off at the hotel, and called me once or twice a week to ask how I was doing. I received no real assistance.”
  • “He is my friend, but I get frustrated when he fails to maintain distance and subordination at work. After all, I am his manager. His friendly jokes are inappropriate.”

Despite our need for friendship as social creatures in our personal and professional lives, it can sometimes be challenging to navigate friendship in multicultural environment.

My networking group discussed John D. Rockefeller’s quote today: “A friendship founded on business is a good deal better than a business founded on friendship.” When asked if I agreed, my response was: “Tell me more. What do you mean by friendship?”

I encourage you to do the same.

Create a psychologically safe space for your diverse team. Get team together & write the word “Friendship” on a board. Then, ask everyone to share their thoughts on what friendship means to them personally.

It’s a great way to encourage open and honest communication, and it’ll help you build better relationships with your team.

Go ahead and give it a try! But most importantly – listen, ask questions and don’t assume.

Stay culturally curious.

*At Quiet Tenacity, we believe that a successful future requires cultural curiosity. Every business is a people business, and every person in a business brings their own unique cultural beliefs. These beliefs have the potential to inspire or create misunderstandings and conflicts. That’s why we’re here to help you develop your cultural intelligence, whether it’s in your personal or professional life: on your team, in your organization, in your community, or in your country.

We all operate in the global environment now. Are you ready with your global skills?

Let us help you on this journey.