Friends share personal details to strengthen relationships in US, but not in Japan

Oct 19, 2010

In the United States, friends often share intimate details of their lives and problems. However, such self-disclosure is much less common in Japan. A new study by an American researcher living in Japan finds that this may be because of the different social systems in the two countries, and in particular the extent to which there are opportunities to make new friends.

"At first, it seemed strange that in , people didn't open up and share a lot about themselves with each other," says Joanna Schug of Hokkaido University. "But Japanese often look at Americans and think, 'Why are they telling me so much about themselves?'" Schug thought the difference might have to do with the way relationships work in the two countries, in particular the utility of investing in relationships by sharing personal details. In a society like Japan, where relationships are entrenched within rigid social networks (what the researchers call societies low in "relational mobility"), relationship-maintenance strategies like self-disclosure are not as useful as they are in societies high in relational mobility (like the ) where relationships are more easily formed and lost. It is in the latter that people need to invest more effort into strengthening relationships that may be more fragile.

To test this idea, Schug recruited university students in both Japan and the United States to answer questions about their relationships. They indicated how likely they would be to tell either their closest friend or a family member about their biggest secret, their most embarrassing experience, and so on. They also described how the relationships around them work—for example, how much they think that people in their neighborhood, workplace, or other environment can voluntarily choose who they interact with. In another experiment, volunteers also shared the number of new friends and acquaintances they had formed in the previous three months.

Schug wrote the study with Masaki Yuki of Hokkaido University and William Maddux of INSEAD. The work is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Schug and her colleagues found that Japanese people were indeed more likely to feel that relationships were stable and because of this, were less likely to share so much information with their closest friend. However, Americans shared more information with than the Japanese because they saw their relationships as more fragile and shifting more often, thus requiring more maintenance via self-disclosure. Schug says the study presents an interesting paradox: Although the United States is a more individualistic country than collectivist Japan, investing in relationships may actually pay higher dividends in cultures that place an emphasis on the individual.

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User comments : 4

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Simonsez
1 / 5 (1) Oct 19, 2010
This study is fairly informative on the impetus for growing relationships in the United States, but I don't see anything that explains the mechanism for strengthening a relationship with a Japanese friend.
gmurphy
3 / 5 (2) Oct 19, 2010
@Simonsez, Japanese people feel more secure in their relationships therefore they don't feel the need to invest in these friendships by exposing more of their inner selves. In my own experiences with Japanese, I've found that their facial expressions are poor analogs for interpreting their personality. For example, one work colleague initially struck me as bereft of anything that could be interpreted as friendliness but as I became more familiar I was delighted to find that this individual had a wicked sense of humour.
scenage
3 / 5 (2) Oct 20, 2010
I can tell you that it's not just the Japanese but many of the asian cultures work the same way. I am of multiple origins (one being Chinese) and I treat my group of friends completely differently based on whether they are more Eastern culturally or more Western culturally. By "same way", I am referring to the investment in friendships or lack thereof for asian cultures.
Simonsez
3 / 5 (2) Oct 20, 2010
So yOnsa, would you care to enlighten any of us as to why you ranked all these comments with 1? I don't see any reason for that.

@gmurphy and scenage

Thanks you for the comments - that certainly has increased my understanding of the nature of east Asian relationships.

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