Culture Question:

The friendship between Western people.
How do Western people get along with others?

(posted: Sep 2010)

Friendship in the West is mostly pursued for pleasure. People tend to make friends with others whom they like, often people who share similar interests with them or who have been in the same organization (class, workplace, club, etc.). These friendships are, as Monica Keller says in her Cross-Cultural Perspective on Friendship Research, “mostly free from societal influence”. This means that these friendships are not serving economic or functional roles for people – they are not a means to end (other than enjoyment and comfort).

People in the West do sometimes cultivate friendships in order to help their career or their business. Some do this much more than others. This is similar to the idea of guanxi in China. Though some friendships in the West are more guanxi-based, the majority of friendships are not. In the West, such friendships tend to be viewed as quite shallow and not seen as ‘real’ friendships.

‘Real’ friends are there when you need them, without any expectation of anything in return. (Of course if you are always doing things for a friend and that person never does anything for you, you are likely to stop being friends with him/her.) People in the West do not tend to have strong expectations that their friends will help their career. People do get emotional support, camaraderie and also help when it is needed from their friends.

Though Westerners tend to form friendships for primarily emotional reasons (as opposed to practical necessity), you may see less physical intimacy between friends in the West than you see among your friends here on campus in China. This is largely because “intimate physical contact has been sexualized in the public mind over the last one hundred years and is considered almost taboo in friendship, especially between two males.” Though there is wide variation between friendship groups regarding what is a ‘normal’ amount of touching between friends (my own friendship groups tend towards a lot of hugging), the background homophobia in the culture does lead to many people being uncomfortable with a lot of touching between friends. You can see the culture’s influence in children as they change their behaviors as they get older and begin to conform with the social norms of their culture.

There has been some concern in the last decade that friendship, in America at least, has been in decline. USAToday quotes a study showing that “Americans have a third fewer close friends and confidants than just two decades ago”. They say the numbers went from 3 people they could confide in in 1985 to just 2 in 2004, with a quarter of the study subjects in 2004 saying they had no one to confide in. Many suggest that this is due to people spending so much time at work or commuting to and from work. Life in the suburbs takes its toll. In addition, people also have many ways to amuse themselves on their own now in their own homes (computers, TV, video games, DVDs, etc.). It is thought that social networking sites and other online communities will help to counteract this trend over time.


  1. Keller, Monica. “A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Friendship Research”. ISBBD Newsletter. Serial No. 46(2),10–11, 14 (, 26-Sep-2010.

  2. Kornblum, Janet. “Study: 25% of Americans have no one to confide in”. USAToday. 22-June-2006  (, 26-Sep-2010.

  3. Wikipedia. “Friendship”. ( , 26-Sep-2010.

Return to Culture Questions page

   -  top of page -


Two girls chatting