On friendship

A friend is the only person you will let into the house when you are Turning Out Drawers. ~Pam Brown


To an American, it is always something of a slap in the face to be told you are “not friends” with someone, even if you are only just getting to know that person.

To be sure, one of the critiques from Europeans that I often hear about is how superficial the notion of ‘friendship’ is in the US. We smile too much, make promises we don’t intend to keep (“We really have to get together sometime. Do call me!”), and effortlessly prattle off intimate details of our personal lives – whether it’s salaries, the number of houses/cars/boats we own, or famous people we’ve met and/or dated – to relative strangers.

This, of course, tends to horrify our neighbors across the pond. In fact, I really should not have been so surprised; I still remember those painful experiences at our Grenoble flat back in the day, when my French flatmates would invite their friends over, who always seemed so sullen and reserved, and I would smile and laugh in my overly-friendly expat way, chatting animatedly about myself and so on, hoping they would relax a bit and open up as well. Later, my flatmate told me quite bluntly how in doing so, I came off as (and I quote) self-centered, over-bearing, and arrogant. On one particular evening, I remember rushing to my room, utterly crushed, and sobbing as they continued with their party.

I am told that the meaning of ‘friend’ for the French, Germans, and others is considerably more profound as a concept. You don’t call just anyone a ‘friend’ here, certainly not. Friendships are only built after many, many years of connaissance and cultivation. Not to mention the fact that you will rarely get a glimpse into the personal life of a prospective friend until you acquire that esteemed status. Which of course, makes it terribly difficult to get there in the first place. Therefore, when two Germans or two Frenchmen initiate friendly relations, they do so by expounding on their political opinions, breadth of literary and historical knowledge, and/or the weather. Trust and mutual respect is obtained by how well you can match the other in these discussions.

So but, how are close friendships made in the US? Is it really true that Americans make no distinction in their notion of friendship? Perhaps it is linguistic problem; with only the singular term, we often fall back to the, “Oh, that’s just a friend, but she’s a friend friend” or “she’s a close/good friend of mine”.

As a disclaimer, what follows is entirely subjective. But it seems to me that Americans often put up a front to the outside world. This image is usually made up of our own successes and achievements. Name-dropping is quite common because it shows our importance and influence in the world; the amount of money we make, the toys we own, or the awards we win, illustrate the fruits of our hard work (which we value above most all else); and our personal preferences for books, movies, music, hair stylists, and so on, reflect our individuality and unique personality (also strongly valued). Therefore, when two Americans go about striking up a friendship, they tend to share these personal facts, little by little, as appropriate, and trust and mutual respect is built by gauging the similarity of values. In fact, not sharing personal information of this sort is likely to be mistaken as mistrust and dislike, and would be difficult to overcome in the long term.

And still, how would a European know if they had made a ‘close’ friend with an American? Well, I think you would know this when you start learning about the not-so-rosy details of one’s personal life – the failures, disappointments, and humiliations – that one would not otherwise share, even with family.

In the end, the friendship, no matter what side of the Atlantic you’re on, does not change; I’m talking about the kind of friendship that never fades, never sours, never gets old, no matter how many years go by. It’s the getting there that’s the problem. I think I solved this with one particularly close friend upon arriving in Germany: after the third time we’d met, I simply asked her if we could be friends… and there you were!

Lost in Translation

To wish someone luck in the U.S., you cross your fingers. In Germany, you hold your thumb in a fist. Incidentally, crossing your fingers, in either country, means you’re lying.

At some point, these somewhat folkloric pearls of wisdom will manage to fall through the cracks of one’s consciousness, rattling around with all the other confounding and contradictory quirks of one’s native culture, such that one may no longer remember the proper split second reaction to certain social situations.

Case in point. At a coffee shop in Cupertino, a young woman comes up behind me, and exclaims, “Oh, do you work for Apple?” as she pointed to my blue t-shirt and shoulder bag, (not to mention my phone — just a coincidence, I assure you) bearing the familiar logo. She went on. “I know, because my boyfriend works there and he brought one back for me. He loves it there. I don’t work for Apple though,” waves her arms” I work for the city here. It’s pretty interesting actually, we’re trying to get funding for this project…” and so on, detailing her whole life, friends, family and career, quite cheerfully at that, as if we had known each other for years and years.

The thing is that, had I been in Germany, I would have found her behavior overly forward and rather rude. It took me a full three seconds to realize that, on the contrary, I was in California, and she was in fact being incredibly friendly, engaging, and nice. And once I had properly classified the encounter, I considered that, after all, I might have liked to get to know this person.

Three seconds, however, is too much time to reflect on niceties. Before I knew it, she had her coffee, waved goodbye, and was out the door.


Me: “So what’s the word for a yogurt pot in German?”
Nele: “Becher?”
Me: “Ah, see Roland? You have so many geschlagtensahne bechern here to choose from for your kaffee..”
Nele, laughing at me: “No, no, plural is just becher.”

Michael: “Also Roland, ist concubine eigentlich auch negativ connotiert in der Schweiz?”
Roland: “Uhh…”
Me: “Well you can’t ask a guy that..”
Michael: “Do you even know what I asked?”
Me: “Yes, I do. You asked if the word concubine has the same negative connotation in Swizterland.. but you can’t ask a guy that! Cause of course he’s gonna say.. ‘Ohh… not at all! I think concubines are great…'”
Pierre: “Wait, wait.. so a concubine is a becher?”


(Michael finally hands in his thesis, the last day of the semester comes and is gone, he is no longer a student. He also finds out that he will not be paid wages at Siemens, only a ‘living stipend’)
Michael: “My car won’t start…”
Me: “Oh, did the battery die?”
Michael: “I can’t even take the train… or the Saarbahn… I’m not a student anymore! And I don’t have a job!”

Michael, standing at my door, moping: “I’m just a… I’m just a jobless!”
Me: “Oh Michi…”


Michael: “I’ve given up myself..”
Me: “You mean you’ve given up on yourself.”
Michael: “I’ve given up on English too..”

Michael: “And you’re just making fun of me.”
Me: “Aww, Michi-michi…”
Michael: “And my car is making fun of me. Do you know how sad that is when your car is making fun of you?”
Me: … stifles a giggle…