Friendship and Culture – a vital link

by | Sep 26, 2023

Beatrice was so happy to be in Spain. On this first day, the family she was staying with had been completely welcoming. They had given her a lovely bedroom with a view down over the bay, they had brought her around the town to show her all the nice places to meet and have coffee, the theatres and local library, and of course given her the bus timetable and the cycling map for her to reach the ancient university’s beautiful campus.

But now, she was absolutely starving. At home, everyone ate at six. It was now going on for eight o’clock, dark was falling. Do these people ever eat? Finally at nine o’clock at night when she was practically fainting, the family called her down to dinner. Like, what are these people thinking?

If only Beatrice had made some Spanish friends before leaving New York, she would have known that dinner is eaten very late in Spain! Friends tell friends how things are!

We don’t tend to think of friendship as a tool, but intercultural friendship can be the most valuable tool in your kit, if you’re working abroad, or with a team or clients from diverse nationalities, or if you just want to step outside your little world.

Astrid Homan, Professor of Work and Organizational Psychology in the University of Amsterdam, is studying friendship. In 2001, when she started work on her PhD, Astrid was hired on a project looking at diversity in teams – “how people who are different from each other work together and how you can make sure that they don’t experience negative effects of their diversity and obtain the benefits in diversity”.

This led her to think about how individuals could develop their own skills and abilities to be better able to deal with diversity in organizations. “And that’s of course, where intercultural competences come into play,” she says. Astrid has worked with data collected with the Intercultural Readiness Check (IRC) since 2010. Astrid met Ursula Brinkmann of Intercultural Business Improvement in that year. “Dr Brinkman had read one of my papers where we looked at diversity beliefs, and we defined those as beliefs that people have about the benefits of diversity for teamwork. We found that when groups have a better outlook or a more positive outlook on diversity, they’re also better able to use their differences and they perform better.” Astrid’s paper inspired the developers of the IRC, Ursula Brinkmann and Oscar van Weerdenburg, to add a new section to the IRC assessment process, allowing them to conduct research on the relationship between intercultural readiness and diversity beliefs.

One of Astrid’s students, Berke Krauthann, was studying cross-cultural psychology, which is a Master’s degree track at the University of Amsterdam. “Berke came to me and he said, ‘I want to understand better how people develop their intercultural readiness or their intercultural competence’,” says Astrid.

“Intercultural Business Improvement already had a huge databank, from the 85,000 people who have filled in the questionnaire over the years, and as well, the anonymised information the respondents fill out about themselves – their gender, how old they are, their nationality and so on. And Berke thought, well, maybe we can find some correlates – there’s no actual causality because it’s a cross-sectoral study, but there might be some antecedents of whether people are interculturally ready or how they develop intercultural competence.”

Berke and Astrid started thinking about how important friendship was for intercultural competence. Was it just going abroad that made people able to swim in the different waters of other cultures, or were other things important: varied friendships, deep friendships that caused people to change how they understood their world?

Berke decided to find data that would open out this question. When he looked at the data, Berke found that people who go overseas, and so have an immersion in other cultures, are more likely to develop intercultural readiness or intercultural competencies. So far, so obvious. “But he also found that this is especially the case for those who really integrate with different cultures by creating friendships with people who are from different cultures,” says Astrid.

“This is because, if you become friends with someone, you really try to understand them. You try to understand their different habits, the way they think about the world. And that helps you, when you go abroad, to thoroughly take on certain differences between cultures, to understand those differences, and also to take the perspective of others. You are less likely to do this if people are not friends of yours, are not close to you or people you care about.”

Understanding that there are differences in how people approach their life – understanding their way of life, intimately – helps you to understand the benefits of friendship, Astrid says. “And because you develop skills to handle those different ideas and perspectives and habits you’re more likely to also be able to understand where people from different cultures come from. Because you know that your friends from different cultures have different habits and ways of thinking, you’re also more open to other ways of thinking of people who might not necessarily be your friend, but who you interact with at work, for instance.”

Astrid and Berke made use of the data collected from January 2019 through August 2020 from 2,872 people by Intercultural Business Improvement BV. The data collected using the Intercultural Readiness Check is used to measure intercultural competence but also includes questions on friendship.

Most of the participants focused on in the data responded to the Dutch survey.

Astrid explains: “We looked mostly at Dutch individuals. We also had Japanese, Mandarin Chinese people, French, Spanish and some German and Brazilian Portuguese, but these were a small subset of the sample; 54% per cent were women, almost 77% were Dutch – 2,197 of the people who answered.”

There were some interesting results. To their surprise, they found that there were no differences in friendships among different nationalities. Cultures as different as the Japanese and the Brazilian are not different in one way: how people make friends and interact with their friends.

“The relationships that we found didn’t differ between those different groups,” Astrid says. “It seems to be the case that friendship is a generalizable thing. Except for two things: women are in general better at intercultural competence, as, in fact, are older people. But we didn’t find that friendship worked differently for men and women.”

People often do not realize that the friction between friends from different cultures can be fruitful. Intercultural friendships may involve pain, and require courage, Astrid says. “If you go abroad, or if you relate with people who are from a different culture, people will let you know when you do something that is not completely in line with what they expect.

“For instance, I’m going to Israel soon; if I go to Jerusalem, I should not wear certain clothes when I want to go to a holy place. If I’ve never experienced that before, the first time I do it wrong, I will probably be ‘punished’ in a way – I will be shunned a little, or people will get mad at me. So the more of those experiences you have with moving in different cultures, the more likely you are to think before you do these things, and understand that people have a different way of thinking about the world.”

Seeing other ways of knowing the world as valid can be quite a leap at first, but it pays back in gold. “Having more of those experiences helps you to build this sensitivity. It helps you to better communicate because you have practiced. And you’re also better able to see if things are unclear or uncertain for you in a certain culture. You have been able to work through that, or if you haven’t, you might have learned and you know how to do it better next time.”

Based on some other data that Astrid collected together with master student Lotus Smits in 2015 among Dutch students showed that there are also individual or personality differences between individuals related to developing intercultural competences or readiness. Some personality traits make it easier for some people to develop intercultural competences or intercultural readiness than others. Some people have greater openness to experience – “one of the personality traits that makes people more likely to go abroad, or to have multiple experiences, because they like those new things.” Others who are less open in this particular way are less likely, at first, to be open to new people and places.

The data that Lotus and Astrid collected among 203 Dutch students indeed showed that those who are more open to experience, are more likely to go abroad, and develop intercultural readiness. They are also more likely to develop intercultural friendships and to be more open to immerse themselves in different cultures. This immersion in other cultures also helped them to more easily develop intercultural readiness, as data collected by another Master’s student, Liesbeth Affourtit, illustrated. In sum, immersing yourself in different cultures, which intercultural friendships make you do, makes you more ready to effectively manage intercultural interactions, whether it is at work or in social situations.

Berke Krauthann’s paper, “Intercultural Competence Development – Analyzing the Role of Overseas Immersion, Intercultural Friendships & Linguistic Competence”, has not yet been officially published, but is labeled as an official Master’s thesis at the University of Amsterdam.

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