Friendless in America

Friendless in America

A new study, “Intercultural Friendship: Effects of Home and Host Region,” published in the June 2012 online issue of the International Journal of Intercultural and International Communication, reveals that many foreign students in the United States do not make closer, personal friendships with American students.

450 foreign students in the South and Northeast were surveyed and 40 percent revealed that they had no close American friend.  The least satisfied in their friendship pursuits were from East Asia, which represents the highest proportion of foreign students in the United States. reported some highlights from the study:

  • Friendship numbers and satisfaction levels were highest in the South, with the nonmetropolitan Northeast ranking second, and the New York City metropolitan area ranking lowest.
  • Participants from English-speaking countries were most likely to report having three or more close American friends, whereas students from East Asia often had no close American friends.
  • Among all races and ethnicities, 46 percent thought that the reason for their friendship problems was an internal factor, such as low language proficiency or shyness. However, among East Asian students, that percentage was much higher, at 78 percent.
  • The most common reasons why students attributed their friendship difficulties to Americans or to U.S. culture were superficiality (32 percent) and not being open-minded or interested in other cultures (25 percent).

The author of the study, Elizabeth Gareis of Baruch College/CUNY, said: “A central predictor of overall sojourn satisfaction is international students’ contact with the hosting country’s nationals, in particular, the meaningful contact found in friendships.  Through friendships, international students have stronger language skills, better academic performance, lower levels of stress and better overall adjustment to a new culture.”

I find the attention this study is receiving a bit mind-blowing, though I suppose that the high number of self-reports of no intercultural friendships is what drew media attention.  I’m happy to read that foreign students in the South seemed the most satisfied with their cross-cultural friendships.  We’re known to be quite friendly in the South.  The author’s predictive measures that link close personal friendships to academic success and lower levels of anxiety are quite standard in the sojourn literature.  When I defended my doctoral dissertation in 1992, “Fulbright Scholars as Cultural Mediators,” I found that foreign Fulbright scholars who formed meaningful multicultural social networks was the single best behavioral predictor for having academic success and personal satisfaction than those without such networks.

What do you think of the foreign student study findings?  Do they surprise you?  The students who reported no close personal friendship tended to ascribe blame to their American counterparts.  Would you?


11 thoughts on “Friendless in America

  1. This offers great insight into different styles of friendship. As an outgoing extrovert, I happen to like the commonplace Japanese reserve. It’s very elegant and sophisticated, but were I younger and in need of making more friends with my peers, it might very well frustrate me as I’m also a very intense personality and like to talk about deep, often verboten, topics (race, gender, class, religion). The cultural differences in friendships and relationships are opportunities to figure out our wants, needs and preferences. Unlike your family, you get to choose your friends and you should be able to make friends with those with whom you feel most comfortable. Keep in mind that we also have many categories of friendships. I have just a few very close personal friends to whom I can divulge my deepest thoughts. I have hundreds of acquaintances who “know” me through my professional work. I would rather have one close personal friend in this world than a thousand social media friends.

  2. Being a foreigner in a Japanese country I’m not surprised at all as I have gone through the same situation. As a foreigner in Japan it was my mission to make ONLY Japanese friends at first. I liked having only Japanese friends and barely made any American friends because Japanese people are very polite and respectful of each other. After about a year though it got boring for me.

    Being half Japanese and having visited Japan quite frequently growing up I had some qualities of a Japanese person and could speak enough to hold conversations with them but growing up in America my mindset and my personality are more American.

    Making friends with Japanese people and having conversations with them made me realize something about the Japanese people. They are very closed off. Many of them do not like talking about deep and personal things and for many Americans true friendships are based on knowing everything about their friends. Many of the friends I made only wanted to talk about shallow topics and when I would try to discuss something deep they would get uncomfortable and would not want to talk about it. They also had pretty much set topics and it was difficult to venture into topics that were of any interest to me. As an American, not being able to really know my Japanese friends made me not want to be friends with them because all I had were shallow relationships with them. Because of this I no longer hung out with my Japanese friends and made more American friends.

    I think that is why Americans don’t make friends with the Asian foreign exchange students, because they are more reserved and at times they can seem boring for always wanting to follow the rules and not wanting to go crazy. Many American students want to have fun and be outgoing and want to go crazy as well as want to make friends that aren’t shy and aren’t reserved. I’m not saying that all Japanese people are boring and reserved but from personal experience I see more of a reserved nature in them in comparison to my fellow Americans.

  3. A very fascinating insight. I am probably guilty of asking for a lot of opinion from my students. I can see where it might lead to a disconnect between the teacher and student.

  4. You have a wonderful mindset toward study abroad. No wonder you had less difficulty making friends with Americans. You displayed an openness and willingness to take risks to get to know people. Good for you.

  5. I expected this to be the result based upon my experience of studying abroad in the US. During my time abroad I lived in an international house where only foreign students from around the world lived, but I decided to switch to the dorm for “regular” students after one quarter. There are two reasons for this. I wanted to get more chances to meet American students and the foreign students were not determined to make American friends. When I had just started living in the US, I was eager to make as many American friends as possible. However, many other foreign students I saw used to hang out with their friends from the same country. I totally understand that it would be comfortable to talk with each other in their mother tongue, but I felt that that defeated the purpose of studying abroad. I was frustrated with the difference in attitudes and thought they were missing the point of studying abroad. I don’t know if the analysis of the foreign students having a difficult time making close friendship with American is necessarily true. The article suggests American students are narrow-minded or indifferent to other cultures, but rather I do think it is up to the foreign students if they want to create a good friendship with American ones. If they are serious about it, I feel like many Americans would be grateful to accept their attitude and could be good friends.

  6. When I was studying in Canada during my middle school years, I was often treated as an Asian, which lead to some kind of discrimination. Foreigners were to stay at the dorm with the Canadian teacher and also with one or two roommates. My roommate was an Asian (Korean), and also experienced the same kind of discrimination. Since we are described as having “shy personality,” we were tended to be scolded by not telling our opinions. But in our countries, to the elders, we have some kind of spirit of respect, which leads to such an acting. Therefore, in my case, I felt having bonds with Asians and not with the English speaker is necessary to live in that kind of environment. I think that could be one of the reasons that Asians do not feel like being friends with American students (who express a strong image of English speaker) in a positive attitude.

  7. I often hear that the situation written in this article happens a lot when Asian students study abroad. I have many friends who faced the situation like this. I think this happens because Asians expect local people to welcome them. Usually in Asian cultures, new people do not have to talk to local students actively because local people have interest in new people. Therefore, when Asian people want to have good relationships with Americans, Asians need to understand or realize the cultural differences.

  8. I think the article is very true. A graduate student who came from another university to Sophia told me that she wondered why many exchange students at Sophia were not with Japanese students. Also, when I went to language training to Barcelona, Japanese students were always sticking together while other students who came from European countries made one group regardless of the differences of their native countries. There are big differences between European cultures and Asian cultures and Japanese are often worse at speaking English than European people. As the article says, these are some of the reasons why Asian students have a hard time to get used to the society of American students.

    However, the story my friend who was an exchange student at Sophia last year told me struck me as a part of the reason why exchange students cannot adapt themselves to students of host university. What he told me was that he could not remember names of Japanese students because he met many students at one time. For European people, it must be hard to remember Japanese names which they are not familiar with. If exchange students and students of host university meet few times a week, it takes time to remember names and that can be one of the obstacles for both of them to be friends.

  9. I think that this is a very natural and common situation also here at Sophia. Even between the native Japanese students who have never been abroad and returnee students, there is a significant distinction when we spend time being together at classes. Most of the native Japanese students are relatively shy and speak English so slowly, being afraid of mistakes. Most of the returnee students, on the other hand, are speaking fluently, confident and always relaxed. This distinction would never change also at the schools in U.S. It could be true that people, especially young people like students, do not tend to want to mingle with those who look or seem different. Furthermore, if that distance becomes worldwide like between the U.S. and East Asia, it would be obvious that these students cannot easily overcome the cultural and behavioral border, though it is one of the most important and valuable things to reach the goal of understanding each other.

  10. I can agree with this article unfortunately, because as a returnee I have seen many situations that were just like how it was stated in the article. When I went to public schools in New York, there were many groups of friends, but often Asian students were not with American students. As a new student in the school, because I could not speak any English, it was easier for me to be with Asian students who had similar cultures and perspectives. Yet, after I spent a couple of years in the US, I was able to adjust to the American culture and became close friends with American students.

    I would not blame American counterparts, because it is up to the foreign students if they will become close friends with Asian students or American students. Making friends needs some effort when someone is in a new environment, so if the foreign student wants to make American friends, s/he should try to communicate more with American students. They should at least try at first, because effort can change something and I believe the real attraction of studying abroad is to be able to interact with foreign cultures.

  11. As a Japanese who will be an exchange student next semester, I am half afraid of the situation, but at the same time, half convinced. At Sophia, also this article is true, even though Sophia has often emphasized its international aspect. The problem is not the number of exchange students, but little opportunities to be friends with international students. I know many Japanese friends who are willing to make friends among international students. And I guess international students also want to make native friends. I believe not only in Sophia but also any universities that are faced with the low satisfaction result, that if both sides can have a chance to meet with each other, the satisfaction rate would increase.

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