Culture Clash


Sunday, October 13, 2002

Americans use the word
‘friend’ for many people

After six months working in Boston, Mass., Derek Hamilton began having lunch with a group of four coworkers.

Originally from Leeds, England, Derek worked as a quality control officer in a food manufacturing plant. When his lunch companions asked him how he was enjoying Boston, Derek answered, "I haven't enjoyed it very much yet. It's been hard, for example, to make new friends." One of his American colleagues responded, "What do you mean? We're your friends! We interact frequently at work and get along fine." The Americans were upset that Derek did not consider them friends, and interactions at work were chilly for a few weeks.

Derek and his American colleagues have encountered a cultural difference in people's attitudes toward the word "friend." In the United States, the word is used very freely and it includes people who are emotionally close as well as casual acquaintances and workplace colleagues. I remember talking with an American who referred to "a dear friend." Later in the conversation, it became clear that the American had not seen this person for 10 years and did now know where in the world he was living.

People from Great Britain are more likely to use the term "friend" for a smaller number of people who are emotionally very close. In addition, these people are likely to spend free time with each other and to share interests that lead to shared activities. Working together with people and having cordial relations at work is not enough. People in the workplace can be valued colleagues, but without strong emotional ties and shared leisure time activities the term "friend" is inappropriate for the British.

At an organization I once worked for, an Englishman joined the staff as a senior researcher. After a few months, one of my colleagues invited him to dinner at his house. The Englishman politely declined, and my colleague complained, "He is willing to work with us but not socialize with us!" As with the previous example, differences in attitudes toward "friendship" come into play. From the Englishman's perspective, it is difficult to form a friendship after only a few months. Further, the British often have the attitude that "People's homes are their castles." They may be uncomfortable visiting the homes of casual acquaintances, feeling that they invading their privacy.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with Robert Robinson of the University of Hawaii College of Business Administration. This cultural difference is one that requires understanding and mutual adjustment. If they are living in Great Britain, Americans should expect friendships to develop more slowly. If they are living in the United States, British people should accept more social invitations even if they feel that they don't know the Americans very well.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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