Friendship is Relative

Violet: I like him.
Mary: You like every boy.
Violet: What's wrong with that?
                     It's a Wonderful Life

In places like Sweden, folks are more reserved and less "friendly" than in the U.S.   When reserved and friendly cultures meet, the reserved folks often say they were initially fooled into thinking others liked them in particular.  It took time to realize that their acting "friendly" did not actually indicate that they were more likely end up being friends in deeper ways.  Eventually they learned to gauge how much foreigners from that friendly culture like them by comparing how those foreigners treat them, relative to how they treat others.  Friendliness, as a signal of deeper interest and loyalty, is relative.  

The movie quote above describes a common insight, that some people are "too easy" as friends.  But salesman, politicians, etc. seem to usually act extra friendly to everyone; do we discount them enough for their being too easily "friendly"?

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  • Andy McKenzie

    I don’t think friendship is zero sum in this way at all. I know that some of my best friends have lots of other best friends too, but this doesn’t make me think of them as less good friends.

    Perhaps this is simply my cultural bias. Perhaps people who are friendly to everyone are more likely to be OK with their other friends being friendly to everyone too. But really, can’t we all just get along? 🙂

  • frelkins

    I’m reminded here of the well-known passage from from the British Xenophobe’s Guide to the Americans:

    “Americans are friendly because they just can’t help it; they like to be neighbourly and want to be liked. However, a wise traveller realises that a few happy moments with an American do not translate into a permanent commitment of any kind. Indeed, permanent commitments are what Americans fear the most. This is a nation whose fundamental social relationship is the casual acquaintance.”

    Aristotle noted that where there was friendship, you did not need justice. And perhaps this is the origin of this aspect of us Americans – as America developed we were often far from strong central governments and without the highly structured jurisprudence of Europe. As a result, we had to be “friendlier” to each other to build the trust that European societies had through established institutions, ethnic homogeneity, and a class system.

    Also I think the element of mobility is important – we Americans used to love to move around (altho’ that may have slowed recently) this means we need more superficial friendliness to adapt to a new group or job.

    Nordic peoples are more reserved, but trust each other more; indeed it is said they have the highest levels of trust of any Western countries studied – 78% of Swedes say other people can be trusted. Americans are friendlier, but trust each other less; only 58% of Americans say the same. Such lack of trust may be a clue as to why Americans tend to have “casual acquaintances” instead of Montaigne-style friends.

    Finally, as to poor Violet, you may be too hard on her. In grade school I remember constantly being told the importance of liking of everyone – an admonition I believe was more commonly given to girls than to boys. We really are socialized differently, even to this day.

  • billswift

    That’s why some cultures, especially Americans, emphasize the difference between friends and “real” friends.
    One novel I remember said that a real friend is someone “who when you tell them you have a body in the trunk immediately offers to help bury it.” By that definition I don’t have any “real” friends, and I sometimes wonder just how many people do.

  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    frelkins, how about Heinlein, “an armed society is a polite society”?

    billwift, “Friends will help you move. Real friends will help you move bodies.”

    I wonder about regional differences in the United States (or other large countries like Russia, China, India, or Canada). The Midwest feels much friendlier than New England. My wife had a job interview in Boston that included, “Why do you keep smiling at me?” The tone suggested that friendliness was presumptuous.

    Combining that with Robin’s question, I think of the Republican primary, where Mitt Romney was described as an android deep in the uncanny valley while Mike Huckabee scored points with folksy likeability. But that is probably a lousy example because Governor Romney grew up in Michigan, while the Democratic primary featured a more famous Arkansan who was considered the less likeable candidate … against a Midwesterner. I seem to have run into frelkins’s mobility point.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    It depends whether you’re trying to infer characteristics of an individual from knowing that someone else is friends with them – in which case, say, “Eliezer Yudkowsky regards this person as a friend” is a much stronger signal than “Ben Goertzel regards this person as a friend” because he’s a lot more tolerant than I am. But in terms of how much you can expect a friend to help, the game is not necessarily zero-sum, as Andy observed.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    This is not a simple dichotomy. Russia is not like either the US or Sweden. Rather than being reserved, most are downright unfriendly, and have very low trust levels. However, if one does become a close friend with a Russian, it will be very strong and very deep, probably more of a contrast with the superficial friendships Americans are notorious for than what goes on in Sweden.

    There are other countries where people are friendlier than in the US, mostly in sub-tropical regions. It is also the fact that some people are friendlier than others, and have more real and deep friends than others, although some may rank higher than others. This is not a zero sum game, although relatvity does matter.

  • delta

    You claim (correctly) that friendliness is relative, but then you go on to conclude that friendship is relative. Your conclusion doesn’t follow from your premise. People have different ways of expressing friendship, but this doesn’t entail that what they express is different. On the contrary, how would you know that their different expressions are all expressions of friendship, if friendship was as different as the expressions?

    • Blackbirdflys

      Expressions, how close they stand , do they look you in the eye, do you feel the vibes….. If politicians smile all the time at everyone I would say not trust them and that has been proven right.

  • Jay

    “But salesman, politicians, etc. seem to usually act extra friendly to everyone; do we discount them enough for their being too easily “friendly”?”

    So long as the government has a monopoly on the indoctrination centers we send our kids to I would say a resounding no. Public schools have every incentive to shove Upton Sinclair down our kids throats while never once uttering the name of Mencken.

  • kvkhk

    i dont understand what jay is trying to say

  • frelkins

    @kvkhk

    Jay is making a partisan political statement of the kind we mercifully rarely see on OB. That’s why it looks so. . .odd.

  • freeman

    Not quite, it’s an anti-political statement, most people don’t bother because the leftist bias here is so strong.

  • kvhhk

    freeman, felkins: thanks for your help. i guess im just dense i simply don’t understand what exactly the sinclair/ mencken reference is bringing across. maybe someone could try again to point out the connection between the two?

  • scav

    I remember reading a really interesting psychology book once (and sadly I wish I could remember what it was called), which dissected the different shades of meaning in abstract words like “friend” or “freedom”, and their translations in other languages than English, noting that there isn’t a one-to-one relationship in general between the words used in one language and in another.

    I can’t remember much about it, except the meanings were expressed in sets of simple statements that a speaker would be expected to agree on with reference to the term.

    There was considerable difference between British “friend” and Australian “mate”, for example.

  • Blackbirdflys

    There will also always be people who will pretend to be your friend cause they want something from you. A ride, money, your husband. You have to have good senses to figure it out.