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!