A recent study published in the journal Cross-Cultural Research explored differences in the way Russians and Canadians understand friendship. A series of studies revealed that the two groups embrace different mental maps of friendship and define this type of relationship with different underlying properties. On the whole, the Russian notion of friendship appeared to be more rooted in trust and closeness compared to the Canadian one.
The study’s authors, a team of researchers led by Marina M. Doucerain, were motivated by the fact that friendship research has predominantly focused on Western samples. While the North American notion of friendship has been widely studied, evidence suggests that notions of friendship vary from culture to culture, such that immigrants tend to face difficulties making social connections when arriving in a new country.
“When I moved to Canada from France, I was struck by the ways in which people used the word ‘friends.’ They seemed to use it in a very different way from what I was accustomed to back in France,” explained Doucerain, an associate professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
“Then I read the memoirs of Eva Hoffman, an immigrant from Poland to the United States (Lost in Translation), and I realized that she had similarly puzzling experiences. When talking with other immigrants, I realized that many people shared similar stories. They arrive in Canada with an idea of what it means to be a friend, they use this idea as a guide to make new friends, but quickly realize that it doesn’t work, that this existing ‘schema’ is not a good guide.”
“I wanted to see if we could measure these impressions, quantify them. Also, during my PhD, I came across the writings of linguist Anna Wierzbicka, who had done careful qualitative linguistic analyses of differences between English and Russian. I knew then that this was the contrast I wanted to measure, because there was already some basis to build on.”
Doucerain and her colleagues tested an approach to exploring cross-cultural differences in the psychological representations of friendship using techniques informed by linguistics and anthropology. They tested their approach over a series of studies among two samples of Russians and Canadians.
First, the researchers explored participants’ mental maps surrounding friendship by compiling a list of words associated with interpersonal relationships. For the Canadian sample, this list consisted of synonyms for the term “friend.” For the Russian sample, synonyms were compiled for the word “droog” (the Russian equivalent for “friend”). The researchers then had participants judge the similarity between different pairs of these relationship words, for example, judging how similar “friend” is to “pal”.
When the researchers analyzed these similarity ratings, they found that there was a group consensus in each sample for how the words were clustered. However, the two groups conjured up different mental maps. For example, among the Canadian sample, the terms “friend” and “best friend” were located in different clusters, suggesting that they represented different concepts. But in the Russian sample, “droog” and “luchshiy droog” (the Russian equivalent for “best friend”) were in the same cluster, suggesting the two terms represented very similar concepts. This finding could suggest that Russians view friendship as a more intimate bond compared to Canadians, while Canadians apply the term more casually, as something distinct from a best friend.
In a next study, Russians and Canadians completed questionnaires that asked them questions about the properties of friendship. The researchers used a statistical method called exploratory factor analysis to determine the factor structure of friendship in the two countries. It was found that this factor structure differed between Russians and Canadians, suggesting that the two cultures define friendship using different underlying properties.
In a final study, the researchers used participants’ understanding of friendship to reliably predict their country of origin. They found that Russian respondents were more likely to endorse the idea that friends tend to belong to the same gender, desire frequent interaction with each other, fully trust one another, and can disclose things to each other without fearing negative consequences. Canadians, on the other hand, were more likely to feel that friends tend to have highly similar life circumstances and that having friends is a reflection of a person’s social skills.
Overall, and in line with previous evidence, the findings suggest that the Russian concept of friendship is more intense and involved than the Canadian one, with Russians endorsing notions of trust and readiness to help more strongly in their conceptions of friendship. The study authors note that this emphasis on trust might reflect Russia’s totalitarian history when disclosing information about oneself entailed a great risk and trust in one’s relationships was crucial.
“When you say ‘friend,’ don’t assume that the image that comes to mind will be the same for everyone,” Doucerain said. “Expectations, ways of being a friend, how to act, etc., can be very different depending on the cultural context. In this article, we quantified what Canadians and what Russians mean by ‘a generic friend,’ but such differences could be found in many other contexts. So when meeting a new person, if you find that that person is acting awkwardly or slight off-beat, remember that it might just be because she’s relying on a different ‘mental guide’ regarding how to be a good friend.”
But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“Our samples were not necessarily representative of the general population, so that could bias our results,” Doucerain explained. “Also, there might not be only one type of generic friend. Maybe different sub-groups or sub-cultures have slightly different models, even within a broad ethnolinguistic community. We would need to verify that in future research. And finally, we looked at the Canadian-Russian contrast here, but future research should definitely look at other contrasts as well.”
“I find it incredibly important to better understand how people from different ethnocultural backgrounds have contact and what factors facilitate or hinder this contact. Having different friendship models is one aspect, among many others,” Doucerain added.
The study, “What Are Friends for in Russia Versus Canada?: An Approach for Documenting Cross-Cultural Differences”, was authored by Marina M. Doucerain, Andrew G. Ryder, and Catherine E. Amiot.