In the United States, people greet each other in literally thousands of ways. I had been away on sabbatical from a university in the southern part of the Midwest. When one of the shop technicians in my department saw me again after the year away he called out cheerfully, “Hey there, stranger! Police know you’re out?” “What did he mean by that?” asked my German husband, Markus, worried. “He meant ‘hi’,” I said.
At our family farm, in Wisconsin, our neighbor Raymond takes your hand in a handshake, grasps your bicep with his other hand, and asks you, “What do you know for sure?” “What did Raymond want to know?” asked my husband after witnessing this. “He was saying, ‘hi’,” I explained. Another neighbor, Kenny Bass, phones up, sometimes as early as 7 a.m., and just starts with “Think we got about 4/8ths of an inch.” There is no manifest greeting at all, he goes right to the amount of rain that fell last night.
My husband is impressed by all of the ways of waving hello, even those that occur just around the farm. Raymond typically drives around on a 4X4 quad (in the past, it was a pickup truck) early in the morning in order to check out his land. When he passes he stretches his arm out straight, palm down, in your direction. On a good day, he points at you with the outstretched hand, too. Markus practices this sometimes. There is also the lifting of one finger off the steering wheel of the tractor or the car. This looks better if you also nod your head once. Markus practices this too.
I figure that the above illustrations characterize about 1/500th of the United States. People from every state could pipe in with loads of other ways to greet and express connection to another person. I feel connected to Raymond and Kenny Bass. I have known them most of my life. Kenny has never traveled beyond one state to the West of where he lives, but he asks me about France casually, as if he’d considered visiting, but didn’t have the time. I never call them on the telephone or write them letters. But I sometimes stop and sit around talking about the weather, or the neighbors, or township politics. And I always wave.
The stereotype that Americans are superficial seems to be built on three assumptions as far as I can tell. One is that they are materialistic and capitalistic, and that is superficial. The second is that they smile all the time, and since they can’t actually be happy, this is also superficial. The last is that they tell you too many intimate details about their lives, and then walk away. This is the most superficial of all.
A useful exercise for a social psychologist like myself is to ask a larger question rather than judging anyone through a cultural lens: How can and do people get to know each other, given their cultural-historical context, and what does good knowing look like to them? The admittedly simplistic start at an answer that I am working on has to do with figuring out what role intimacy – first of all as represented by level of self-disclosure -- plays in relationships.
A cultural difference that might account for variations in relationship processes lies on whether the society in question was founded on waves of approximately equal status immigration (like the US) or a concentration of indigenous peoples who still constitute the majority population (like European nation states). Imagine the difference in getting to know your neighbor in Minnesota if you were Polish and he or she was Norwegian. You both had it bad in the old country. You both got some land on a bet with the US government. Now you both have it worse in the new country, and you need to figure out how to be friends when there isn’t any grain left in the barter this winter. In Nebraska the Germans are doing the same dance with a Swedish neighbor. Did you read Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath? The problem progressively moved out to California. How do you get to know each other? You do not know what you have in common, so you have to be very explicit about it. No beating around the bush. In international business, cultures in which there is high need for informational exchange are called low context cultures.
Meanwhile, back in France, people are raised more in defined social groups, closer to the way they lived in the systems of courts of the 16th Century. There are subtle rules of etiquette that distinguish among indviduals from different groups, and no number of revolutions is going to change the fact that children go to schools where they establish a cohort of friends with whom they are going to spend the rest of their lives meeting for la reviellion, New Years Eve, in Djion, even if they live in Nice, and going skiing together in the Pyrénées even if they live in Lyon. These cohorts have important social benefits: people living within them do not need to ask many personal questions about preferences, resources, or politics. And friends made outside of these cohorts and ones family simply play a different role in their lives. In the cohorts, lots of information is implicitly shared and agreed upon. In international business these days, cultures with this property of low need for informational exchange are called high context cultures.
It occurs to me that because of the lack of implicit or at least constrained information in social encounters in multicultural societies, self-disclosure may not simply be different in frequency and content, but it may play a different role than in more homogeneous nation states. A possibility to explore empirically is that self-disclosure is relied on as a means to evaluate the viability of relationships in the former, instead of being the natural end state of viable relationships, as in the latter. In other words, it could be that Americans to some degree exchange seemingly intimate stories to find out whether they are going to be good friends, whereas in Europe they have to be good friends in order to exchange intimate stories when necessary.
The cliché that I find the most cloying and culturally insensitive (but which is taught in diversity training programs, I have heard), is the “peach and coconut analogy”. This cliché states that Americans are peaches: they are sweet and soft on the outside, but as you get deeper you run up against the pit and you never get to the center. Europeans, the cliché goes, are difficult to get to know, but once through the tough shell, you get to the center where it is sweet and soft and there is sustenance for life.
This culturally biased nonsense could only be possible if getting to know each other happens in the same way (which I have suggested it probably does not, for very good historical reasons) and if what you mean by friendship is also the same. Is there only one definition and measure of being a good friend? Probably not objective ones. According to the peach-coconut cliché, you should find, empirically, that Americans (or other multicultural society peoples) feel that actually they have no deep friendships, whereas the French (or other nation state peoples) think that their friendship situation is just incredibly fulfilling. So far, while researchers have measured some of these variables, I have heard no evidence for this difference. Rather, people so far seem to be doing just about the same within their culture.
The problem may be, then, that people are not doing fine cross-culturally or cross-nationally. If social psychologists wanted to do us all a favor, they would work not on blindly testing the peach and the coconut cliché. Rather, they would back way up and try to understand what people in low and high context cultures mean by friendship, how they go about forming those, and then assessing what people want out of these friendships. Importantly, such studies would not be conducted on college sophomores, and they would have to be longitudinal because I doubt people have much insight into the creation of lasting friendship. Studies like these could reveal why or when cross-national relationships can be difficult, and something could be taught in cultural diversity courses to help, rather than hurt by the insulting perpetuation of cliché.
There is a moral here, and it is this: If you sent Christmas cards to someone in a different country who you considered a friend, but never heard back, stop and think before you conclude that the relationship was superficial and that therefore all members of the so-called friend’s national group are also superficial. It might be, it could just be, either that sending Christmas cards is not their way of signaling the importance of a friendship, or that they did not feel as close to you as you did to them because you not doing what they thought of as intimate or friendly in the first place.
Just one possibility to think about before serving up the peaches and coconuts.