The Secret of America’s Success with Immigrants

I think the reason for this is actually pretty banal. Americans mostly don’t do deep, lifelong friendships. This is probably because they generally prefer wide social networks with lots of shallow relationships (nb I do not use ‘shallow’ here with any kind of value judgement, I’m being purely descriptive). Partly this is because if you’re ambitious you’ll have to move around and so it’s better not to invest in relationships with people too much because sooner or later one of you will probably have to move and a long distance friendship is not the same as one with frequent face to face contact. If you keep things lighter the pain is still there but it heals a lot faster. You want wider networks so that other shallow friendships can fill in the empty space. These types of friendships are easier to start because none of them take up too much time.

Adult immigrants are mostly not expecting to be able to make deep connections (they may be fleeing the very idea of deep connections) and so they’re happy enough to at least have American style shallow relationships  and truly can feel that they’re being treated as equals.

In Europe, on the other hand, the general preference is for fewer  but deeper and very longlasting friendships and many Europeans look down on shallow friendships as phony or manipulative (I think they’re neither). Immigrants have a much tougher time finding a social circle because the natives’ social circles are already plenty full thank you very much and they’re not into the idea of meeting new people for the sake of meeting new people.

There are probably ways around this hurdle and they probably differ by country. The only example I’m pretty sure of is Poland, where there definitely is, but that’s a topic for another post.

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3 Responses to The Secret of America’s Success with Immigrants

  1. Clarissa says:

    I don’t know. I have two very close friends with whom I maintain pretty intense friendships. One is from a family that has paperwork to the effect that they came here on the Mayflower and one is Canadian. We all live far away from each other now but even that doesn’t get in the way of the intensity. We share things with each other that nobody else knows. Of course, the friendships started in grad school, and that very traumatic experience pretty much guaranteed intensity.

  2. xykademiqz says:

    I am an immigrant into the US, living in the Midwest. First, not all of the US is the same. Much of the Midwest is populated by people who have been here for generations, they have highschool friends and aunts and uncles here, and have the deep lifelong friendships that you say are typical of Europe. It is very hard to penetrate such social circles, especially for an immigrant, and that’s a big issue for me. I wish I had friends as close as I used to have back home, but being an immigrant along with the fact that making friends as an adult is generally harder has me basically resigned to shallow relationships.

    As Clarissa says, friendships that start in school are generally long-lasting. For deep friendships you either need a long time of repeated exposure to one another (like grade school), so eventually someone says something meaningful and your relationship “levels up” or a really intense experience (like a trauma). Growing up together generally provides plenty of opportunities for intense shared experiences. Once we are adults, the interactions become sanitized and socially constrained and we never get either the time needed or achieve the vulnerability needed to really be known by someone else.

    I don’t think Americans in general are happy with shallow relationships, either. They most definitely differentiate between the close friends, of which they have a handful, and everyone else. I think they simply tolerate them better, are better at seeing the utility of shallower, situational friendships, and don’t view them as a negative (the negative being the norm in much of Europe where shallow relationships equal opportunism and manipulation).

    • cliff arroyo says:

      “Much of the Midwest is populated by people who have been here for generations …. It is very hard to penetrate such social circles, especially for an immigrant, and that’s a big issue for me”

      Of course no country is a monolithic whole. But the general point is that the more connections the local population has with each other (and the older those connections are) the harder it will be for immigrants to have any kind of social life. People who move to the Netherlands or Scandinavia (or the UK for that matter) all complain about how hard it is to build any kind of social life except with other newcomers.

      “I don’t think Americans in general are happy with shallow relationships, either. ”

      If they’ve had deeper relationships and then only have shallow ones then yeah, that’s a drag.

      “better at seeing the utility of shallower, situational friendships, and don’t view them as a negative”

      Absolutely. I think it’s one of the big cultural differences between the US and Europe.

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