Wall Theory: Are American relationships more superficial?

Taking a cross-cultural class right now, and one recent discussion was on perceptions of America from two angles — those who have lived in America their whole lives, and those who had come in the last 10 years. It was a small sample size on each side, admittedly, but relatively equal numbers, so the conversation had some interesting points. After we got through all the Americans — most of whom said stuff like “entrepreneurial spirit!” — we shifted to the other side, and the first two people to raise their hands (their hands literally shot up) said, “American relationships are much more superficial.” One of the guys elaborated: “In America, you go to college for four years. You meet 200-300 people, right? How many are you actually friends with a year or two later? Maybe four or five at most?” I started thinking about this. Now, I’ve never lived anywhere but America — I’ve only actually even traveled outside of America two times — so I can’t say for sure what other cultures are like in terms of relationship-building, but … there is some interesting research out there that’s worth poking around for a second.

Here’s a 2010 article from Psychology Today that brings up a bunch of common points:

Germany is also part of the Old World. A family may live in the same town, or even the same house, for several centuries; everyone knows everyone, and personal relationships develop gradually over extended periods of time. The United States has only been around for two centuries. We are a nation of immigrants, and time begins for many families with their arrival here. Our history of wagon trains and the conquest of the West involved a similar internal migration experience–breaking the ties of family and friendship, and then forming new ones.

American individualism means that we give more emphasis to our own needs in forming and dissolving relationships than do cultures organized around traditional forms and relationships. This means that people who don’t know one another can form groups to satisfy common needs. In criticizing what she viewed as the superficiality of our friendships, the German woman also praised the existence of numerous informal groups–around hobbies, interests, work, self-improvement, religion, and so forth–that make it possible to meet new people.

You will hear this a lot in these types of discussions — individualism, capitalism, market-based economy. You’ll also hear that because of capitalism, Americans often have to move around a lot (for jobs), so they evolve over time to break and re-build associations. Askville, a sub-site of Amazon, has a whole diatribe more around the beauty aspect of superficiality.

There’s also this theory about technology + the rise of the suburbs:

We have not, of course, turned into Solarians here on earth, strictly limiting our numbers and shunning our fellow humans in revulsion. Yet it’s hard not to see some Solarian parallels in modern life. Since Asimov wrote The Naked Sun, Americans have been engaged in wholesale flight from one another, decamping for suburbs and Sunbelt, splintering into ever smaller households, and conducting more and more of their relationships online, where avatars flourish. The churn rate of domestic relations is especially remarkable, and has rendered family life in the United States uniquely unstable. “No other comparable nation,” the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin observes, “has such a high level of multiple marital and cohabiting unions.”
One interesting concept around all this is “The Wall Theory.” Essentially, the bar for entry into an American relationship is much lower (the link has a visual accompaniment). The bar for entry in other countries is higher, but decreases with time. In America, it increases with time. So theoretically, a German who moved to America would see relationship-forming patterns head in essentially the opposite direction of how they go in his/her own country. To wit:

The American pattern shows how Americans are initially very friendly and open: as symbolized by the first wall being very low. However, American values stress privacy and independence, and the walls become higher and higher before one reaches the stage of a good friendship (represented by the Xs in the center of the diagram). Thus, many international students are very happy when the American they meet is so friendly and open. However, when the American does not continue to act in a way that the international student expects of a friend, the international student is disappointed and confused. They may sometimes conclude that Americans are superficial and do not really know how to be friends. What the international student may not realize is that they have not yet reached the stage of being good friends with the American: they need to go over some “higher walls” before reaching the center and a good friendship. Alternatively, Americans living in a country where people are more reserved and not as initally friendly as in the US, may sometimes become discouraged about ever making friends in that country: they may feel that people in their host country are very unfriendly.

Of course, it’s also common to point to social media, texting, etc.

That video above is more about finding love — it’s hysterical, though, so watch it — and less about friendships, but … I thought it was solid enough to embed.

In short form, I don’t know the answer. I’d imagine America comes off as more superficial in terms of relationships, and other countries might come off as more insular (which can be hard in its own right). Insularity tends to stem from generations of connectedness in the same place; superficiality tends to stem from viewing relationships as transactional as opposed to productive or essential. I do think the communication stuff is a little overblown — it has certainly changed over the past 10-20 years, and massively over the past 50, but I still think people know how to communicate in the “big” moments (life, death, marriage, etc.) I think generations being born now will grow up in a massively different world than their great-grandparents did in terms of what’s available to them with communication and technology, and obviously that has pros and cons with it. I know a lot of people in America with close friendships, so I don’t think it’s a major trend or norm or anything, but I do think the idea of what’s important in a relationship/acquaintanceship is obviously going to be different in different areas of the world.

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. Interesting. I was always puzzled at the ease with which Americans say “I love you” to even distant friends; that certainly surprised me when I lived in the Midwest, as it is clear that what they mean is “I like you” or “We share the same interests”. The ease with which Americans move and the focus on the nuclear family to the exclusion of the extended family also account for the perceived superficiality of their friendships.

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