Monday, May 30, 2011

Cultural differences between Argentina and the United States - Friendships

In the comments to a previous post, I wrote “I still feel that I can't make true friendships (inside or outside academia) in a way that I was able to do in Argentina”. Clarissa picked up on the idea, and suggested that we wrote about it. So here it goes. She believes she also has a lot to say about the topic, so we can expect a post from her very soon. so she also wrote one. Very different from mine.

First, a disclaimer: I live in the United States because I chose to do so. Even if I hadn’t met and married my American husband, my goal since I immigrated to this country was to do my PhD here and find a job here. So this is not a post of somebody who unwillingly found herself in a situation. But what I wrote on that sentence feels very true to me. Sometimes I care more than others, but it is present in different aspects of my life pretty often. I will offer random snapshots and thoughts, which I think will be better to convey my ideas than a more articulated post.

• One of the reasons I believe friendships are different in the U.S than in Argentina is that in my native country, unless one moves to another country, it is highly unlikely that you will end up living in different parts of the country, the same way that it happens in the U.S. As a result, I still have friends from elementary school with whom I visit every time I go back home.

• No matter how generous and friendly an American can be, I find friendships with them more regimented than in Argentina. In Argentina, it’s very common to call somebody and say: "hey, would you like to grab a coffee with me tonight after dinner?" (that would be at least at 10 pm). In America, that’s highly unlikely, both because of cultural norms and because it would be very hard to find an open coffee house at 10 pm.

• Another difference is that in the United States the range of issues that are considered private and therefore not shared except with your best friend is wider. Americans tend to be more private and, sometimes, even need to put a façade that everything is OK because they are ashamed to confess that something is wrong. Having an emotional problem is seen as “weakness”, one of the capital sins in this country. In Argentina, on the contrary, one of the middle-class routines is going to therapy. Forever. I know people who have been in therapy for 8 years. Whether they are better or not as a result is beyond the point. Therapy is an outlet where you can talk. Moreover, your sessions will also be a part of your conversations with friends. It is very common for an Argentinean to say in a conversation: “I have X problem. My therapist says that it is because Y and Z”. In my home country, we say only half-jokingly that we don’t trust people who do not go to therapy; because that means that they do not want to confront their issues.

• As an example of the above, last time I was visiting Buenos Aires, a good friend of mine, but certainly not my best friend by any means, called me one late afternoon and asked if I was free to have a coffee with her. She said that she really needed to talk to somebody. I was free, so we met soon thereafter. What she had to tell me involved an affair she was having with a married man. I know her pretty well, and the previous week I had had dinner with her and her boyfriend (with whom she had been together for 3 years). But I am not her best friend. We spoke a lot about her situation, and, at the end, I asked her why she had called me, when I knew there were friends she was closer to. Her answer: “Oh, I had just come out from therapy, and my psychologist’s office is three blocks from your apartment. I was feeling overwhelmed by my feelings, I needed to talk to somebody. You are a great listener, and besides you are the one who lives the closest. So I called you”. It makes perfect sense from the point of view of an Argentinean, and I was happy to be able to provide an ear for her, and to be useful. An American would probably feel uncomfortable in such situation.

• In a related but darker note, a personal anecdote. If you ever ask me what was my worst day since I moved to the United States, my answer would not be the day I went on a date with somebody I had a crush on and that person started ranting about all those people who speak Spanish. The worst day was, one year after I had left Argentina, when my mother called me at 7 am in the morning and told me that one of my sisters had tried to commit suicide. That, in itself, is obviously bad enough. However, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. For me the worst part was knowing that there was nobody living in the same town I could call and just get together to talk. And cry. And I am not sure that nowadays, 11 years later, there is somebody either.

• Some of the differences are connected to the way life is structured in the United States. Even leisure time with friends is left for weekends. Getting together with a friend a Wednesday at 6 pm at a coffee house is almost impossible: your friend might be at work, have family, needs to cook dinner, etc. Another reason is that there is less of a support network for individuals in this country. I have a lot of friends my own age (36), who are married and have kids. In Argentina, that is not an impediment to have a social life: your parents, your husband’s parents, your relatives, etc will probably live in the same city and, with a short notice, will be more than happy to take care of your kid(s) for a few hours so that you can go out with friends. In the United States, it looks to me that unless you have a very good income and can afford a nanny often, your social life will revolve around “parents” activities or will be non-existent until your kids leave for college. That is, in fact, one of the reasons why I am not very interested in becoming a mother myself.

To sum up, I think Americans can be wonderful and generous people. But because of cultural differences, if you ask me who my closest 5 friends are, they would all be living in Argentina

22 comments:

  1. Delurking to say thank you for this post; it really struck a chord. I'm from Eastern Europe, have been in the U.S. for 8 years and I feel pretty much the same way. I guess the only difference between my country of origin and Argentina is that we don't go to therapy but use each other as therapists:) Also, do you read Academic Jungle? She had a somewhat similar post a few weeks ago.

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  2. Thanks for the comment. I think a lot of us feel the same way, regardless of where we come from originally. I don't read Academic Jungle, but I'll check it out.

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  3. What a beautiful post! It almost made me cry because I wish I had something like this with people from my country. For me, however, it has been completely different. I wrote my own post about that but, unlike yours, it's very depressive.

    Now you will understand why my best friend is Argentinean.

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  4. " In the United States, it looks to me that unless you have a very good income and can afford a nanny often, your social life will revolve around “parents” activities or will be non-existent until your kids leave for college. That is, in fact, one of the reasons why I am not very interested in becoming a mother myself. "

    -Hear, hear! That is also very scary to me. God forbid, I ever find myself engaged in Mommy activities with a bunch of suburban hockey moms. Brrr.

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  5. Different parts of the US are very different with these cultural norms. You'd probably feel quite comfortable in Los Angeles!

    Based on what you've written my guess is you are in someplace that is not a large city in the midwest. :)

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  6. Friendships and structural/cultural factors are something I think about quite a bit for academic and personal reasons, so even though I don't know much about Argentina, this post was pretty fascinating.

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  7. @nicoleandmaggie: I've lived in the South and now I live in the Midwest. But your guess is wrong: I live in what is considered a mid-sized city (approximately a quarter of a million habitants). I actually like the city, I'm pretty charmed by it. But it is really provincial, so you can only go so far if you haven't gone to the same high-school that the other person (and their parents and grandparents) went.

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  8. SpanishProf, I found you through Clarissa's blog.
    I don't usually drop links, but coincidentally I wrote about a closely related issue (feeling isolated as a foreigner in the US) and there were also a number of comments that you might find interesting (e.g. isolation bothers Americans and immigrants alike.)

    Home Is Where the Job Is?

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  9. I think that your post is one of the big reasons why I don't want to move for a job. All my childhood friends and my family are located here. It was very lonely for me when I was in graduate school away from my husband, friends, and family.

    I will say that the benefit of being a mom and hanging out with other moms is that a lot of the barriers do come down. I sometimes am shocked at how much we've shared and how quickly. Becoming a mom made me have a much broader group of friends that I share a lot with. So there are benefits to the mommy life.

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  10. I feel very much the same about life in the U.S., but I was born and raised here. For me, the time and space where I felt the kind of connections and support that you describe in Argentina was my time as a student, both in undergrad and grad school, and now that I am a full-time professor and mother of a toddler I often feel lonely and isolated. We live quite far from my family, and my husband is also an immigrant (from Eastern Europe) so his family is even farther and he feels much the same way you do.

    BTW, I just stumbled across your blog and look forward to hearing and sharing more, as a fellow Spanish professor of about the same age :)

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  11. Emailed comment from Profacero, who for some reason wasn't able to post:

    I agree with Nicole and Maggie, you'd do well in L.A. and also S.F. US expectations and norms for social life are really varied and one gets culture shock within U.S. as well. Things in these large CA work a lot more the way they do in large Latin American or southern European cities. I could write that post substituting the "California" for "Argentina" and say the exact same things about the rest of the US.

    This is why I get irritated with my colleagues who keep saying "pero estas en tu pais" -- I'm not, really; I do have citizenship and speak native English but I can fly to various foreign countries faster thand for less $ than I can fly home, and I have about as much cultural confusion and uprootedness as many foreigners.

    I finally figured out that the difference between me and some Spanish professors is not that I am "en mi pais" but that I have lived abroad before. For them, this is their first experience. For me, it isn't -- but it still is a living abroad experience.

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  12. Now my own comments.

    First of all, thanks everybody for commenting.

    @Clarissa, thank you specially for suggesting the topic. I know it's an issue that touches us very closely. That is probably the reason that many of us started blogging.

    @ABDMama: I believe that in life we all make choices, and as long as we are aware of what they imply, they are all valid choices. If you don't want to move away for a job, your career opportunities might narrow. But if you value more your family and your city, then it's worth it. I know I made a personal choice when I came to the US (even though my family back there is pretty well-off, so money wasn't an issue), when I decided to devote an amount of time to my family life (relationship to hubby) that cuts down on my research time, etc. I'm happy with my choices. Regarding being a mother, I think I didn't express myself very well. The first reason why I am not very attracted to being one is simply that I don't have much attraction to kids. I'm terribly ADD, which means that I need a lot of time for myself (one of the misconceptions about ADD is that it only involves being distracted. No, it also means that you can hyperfocus on things). And every time I've been around friends' kids for more than 3 hours, I get exhausted. Basically, I don't have a maternal instinct in my bone. But I would probably give the thought another consideration if I had a support system that meant I could get away and take time out with my husband a little more often than what I witness in the US.

    @Melody: Thanks for your comments, and welcome to the blog. Grad school was pretty special for me, although I knew it wouldn't last. Basically, because I was surrounded by people from Latin America, so we kind of understood each other and felt really connected. By the way, what's your field?

    @Profacero: I know Los Angeles pretty well, since my in-laws are from there and we visit every year. I love that city. In fact, one of the most beautiful things my husband ever said to me was that I taught him how to love his hometown. However, I think the driving would drive me nuts. I guess what I miss is the city-life opportunities. You mentioned at GMP blog about having lived in Northern Brazil. Last year, I spent a few weeks in Sao Paulo. I felt in love with the city, to the amazement of a lot of people. I felt I could live there very easily. I also hang out with a few Brazilians who were from Northern Brazil and had moved there because of professional opportunities. They all spoke nostalgically about their home town (I think they were from Recife), and deplored the coldness of the "paulistas", for whom everything is work, work, work (my Brazilian friends were professionals, not poor immigrants). I guess everybody has a different perspective according to their own life experience.

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  13. 250K is not a large city! Maybe it's a mid-size city, but there's plenty of room for provincialism in a city that small. So my guess was right, not wrong. If you were in, say, Chicago, you might not be writing this post.

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  14. @nicoleandmaggie: As I said textually, I live in a mid-sized city. I know it's not a large city (Buenos Aires has more than 12 millions), but compared to the 40K college town where I did my PhD, it is in another scale.

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  15. I teach at a small liberal arts college, so I teach a lot of things from the intermediate level on up, literature, culture, etc. My own research is on Central American women writers of narrative. I actually came across your blog while doing some research on syllabi for Latin American studies courses. I'm trying to design one for the first time, and was happy to read your recommendations for films for such a course.

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  16. So we're in agreement, and I was correct when I said, "Based on what you've written my guess is you are in someplace that is not a large city in the midwest."

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  17. Yes dear, and I love you too...

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  18. @Melody: It looks like we are on a similar situation as far as teaching position goes, although my research is different. Is your prospective course in Spanish or in English? I do assign material in English, but I've found the "Latin American Civilization" type course in Spanish really difficult to design. The textbooks available are almost offensively easy, but it is also hard to come with material in Spanish that is both sophisticated and comprehensive enough for the students.

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  19. Brazil, people idealize north and it's an interesting place to visit or be from but it is just so undemocratic, it's a terrible place to live at least in my experience. I really like SP and would live there anytime, smog and all.

    Friendships, US, there's also this tendency to treat them as business relationships or something, and there's the concept of the "disposable friendship." And then there's the idea of "entertaining" people ... for my mother friends are more people you entertain and who entertain you, than people you share with. Just spending the day with someone doing anything that isn't super organized, like a visit to a famous new gallery, is something you can only do with a spouse or a family member, not with a friend ... to do that with a mere friend would be to lose in class status (middle to upper middle class women have to remain formal as much of the time as possible).

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  20. Z: I know. I wonder how Lula government's (both his figure and the impact of his economic policies) affected that, if at all.

    I've found that even doing something that isn't terrible organized with family can be a challenge for Americans. It took my husband his first visit to Buenos Aires to understand what I meant that, as a form of leisure on a nice Saturday, we could just go to neighborhood X (not necessarily one with any kind of "entertainment" attraction) and just walk around and enjoy the day.

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  21. Not just Lula, it's - the further they get from the dictatorship and so on, the better it gets. I'm not sure the coroneis and all have changed that much in attitude, or that the general structure of social relations has changed. But in Salvador now, people are starting to get obese like Americans, because they can afford processed food, and everyone has a cell phone! Back when I first lived there, the servants in our house couldn't afford a bus ride downtown.

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  22. Where I am from, everyone in the neighborhood are friends. There is literally no body we dont know closely. All my friends from like kindergarten are still my friends even though I am wayyy far from them. I really like what you wrote cause its true :) One girl who was my friend in 4th grade in the US totally forgot about me when we met again in 7th grade....

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