It’s easy to mistake certain social customs of Americans that might suggest strong personal connections where none are intended. For example, Americans are more likely than those from many cultures to smile at strangers and to engage in personal discussions with people they hardly know. Others may interpret this “friendliness” as an offer of friendship. Later, when the Americans don’t follow through on their unintended offer, those other cultures often accuse them of being “fake” or “hypocritical.”
Igor Agapova, a Russian colleague of mine, tells this story about his first trip to the United States:
I sat down next to a stranger on the aeroplane for a nine-hour flight to New York. This American began asking me very personal questions: did I have any children, was it my first trip to the U.S., what was I leaving behind in Russia? And he began to also share very personal information about himself. He showed me pictures of his children, told me he was a bass player, and talked about how difficult his frequent travelling was for his wife, who was with his newborn child right now in Florida.
In response, Agapova started to do something that was unnatural for him and unusual in Russian culture — he shared his personal story quite openly with this friendly stranger thinking they had built an unusually deep friendship in a short period of time. The sequel was quite disappointing:
I thought that after this type of connection, we would be friends for a very long time. When the aeroplane landed, imagine my surprise when, as I reached for a piece of paper in order to write down my phone number, my new friend stood up and with a friendly wave of his hand said, “Nice to meet you! Have a great trip!” And that was it. I never saw him again. I felt he had purposely tricked me into opening up when he had no intention of following through on the relationship he had instigated.
The difference between American and Russian cultures here can be described as peach and coconut models of personal interaction.
In peach cultures like the United States or Brazil, to name a couple, people tend to be friendly (“soft”) with others they have just met. They smile frequently at strangers, move quickly to first- name usage, share information about themselves, and ask personal questions of those they hardly know. But after a little friendly interaction with a peach person, you may suddenly get to the hardshell of the pit where the peach protects his real self. In these cultures, friendliness does not equal friendship.
In coconut cultures such as France, Germany, or Russia, people are more closed (like the tough shell of a coconut) with those they don’t have friendships with. They rarely smile at strangers, ask casual acquaintances personal questions, or offer personal information to those they don’t know intimately. It takes a while to get through the initial hard shell, but as you do, people will become gradually warmer and friendlier. While relationships are built up slowly, they tend to last longer.
This excerpt adapted with permission from “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” (2014) by INSEAD professor Erin Meyer, from PublicAffairs.
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