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Personal Space and Boundaries: Making Friends in Usa

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Most of the foreign students who come to the United States to study find out that the concept of friendship is not what they know, or not what they have been brought up to believe. They believe that Americans seem very friendly at in the beginning stage of friendship and then they sort o disappear. In my culture, people who don’t know each other don’t say “Hello, how are you etc.” to people they don’t know or they don’t get into conversation about the weather, or any other general topic with complete strangers. People only do these things with people that they know. That is why it is very surprising to foreign students when everybody on the streets smiles at him/her and try to make conversations with him/her. They often feel like saying “Do I know you?” or “ Have we met before?” , but they cannot do this as the American approaching them seem very friendly and so they answer in the same way, thinking that they will have lots of friends in this country. They misinterpret American friendliness as an offer for the friendship.

However, when they are so happy that they have made a friend, all of a sudden a great disappointment sets in when they see him/her no more. They act like they are best friends, and the next time they run into each other sometimes the American does not even say “hello”, because she/he does not feel like it. While a foreign student might think of Americans as “superficial”, Americans in return may think of them as being cold, emotionally distant, and difficult to make friends with. We must accept that all of these difference rise from the nature of our country, what we understand from the term “friend”, how we are brought up, what we understand from personal space or personal boundaries, and our expectations from our friends. Firstly, let’s take the nature of our country: I mean in the Middle East or Europe people usually stay in the same place where they were born, find jobs, get married and have children all in the same place. Therefore, their ties with their families or friends are long lasting. A family may live in the same place, in the same town for several centuries; everyone knows everyone, and personal relationships develop gradually over time.

For example in my country, even my grandmother or grandfather has friends for 50 years or more. They can still see their school friends. Whereas, here in America people may be forced to move many times in their lives mostly because of their careers. Maybe that is one of the reasons why they cannot have permanent friends. Look at the following paragraph. For the newcomer, America can be a lonely place at first. This is partly due to the career-driven and transitory nature of our society. One’s career may force one’s family to move many times to many different locales. Unlike more traditional cultures with strong extended family and long-term relationships, friendships are made and lost readily here. Some might find Americans superficial and even selfish. However, it is possible to make close friendships – it is just more difficult, depending on where you live. Social relationships in the U.S., by and large, revolve around one’s career and hobbies, one’s religion and one’s cultural background.


An article at http://www.englishforums.com/English/OnFriendship/znmj/post.htm by Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux (1996) “On Friendship” dwell on the same issue: Few Americans stay put for a lifetime. We move from town to city to suburb, from high school to college in a different state, from a job in one region to a better job elsewhere, from the home where we raise our children to the home where we plan to live in retirement. With each move we are forever making new friends, who become part of our new life at that time. Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux also say that people from different countries have different expectations about friendship. For Americans the term friendship can be applied to a wide range of relationships and there are real differences among these relationships, but for someone from a different country that only sees Americans’ surface behavior the difference is not clear. That is why they think Americans are superficial. As foreigners see it, people known and accepted temporarily, casually, flow in and out of Americans, homes with little ceremony and often with little personal commitment.

They can be anybody they know, parents of children’s friends, business associates, from another town or a country. The atmosphere is relaxed and most people, old and young are called by their first names. For people from other nations usually people from the same sex, the same age group can be friends, not like in the United States. The meaning of friendship changes from nation to nation. What, then, is friendship? Looking at these different styles, including our own, each of which is related to a whole way of life, are there common elements? There is the recognition that friendship, in contrast with kinship, invokes freedom of choice. A friend is someone who chooses and is chosen. Related to this is the sense each friend gives the other of being a special individual, on whatever grounds this recognition is based. And between friends there is inevitably a kind of equality of give-and-take. These similarities make the bridge between societies possible, and the American’s characteristic openness to different styles of relationship makes it possible for him to find new friends abroad with whom he feels at home.


In general we can say that Americans seem casual, friendly (they tend to smile and talk easily with the strangers); however they can be closer with fewer. It is as if Americans are too busy to establish real friendships because it requires time and commitment. According to a study on Friendship by Cornell University we have the following on friendship: In addition, expectations of friendship may be very different in various countries. Americans tend to use the word “friend” where people in some countries might use the word “acquaintance;” and they often have different types of friends: friends just to do activities with, close friends, and best friends. In some countries, people reserve the word “friend” for a few people who are very close. http://www.isso.cornell.edu/ithacalife/friendship2.php In the same context look at the following handout on friendship in America: The word “friendship” covers many relationships in America. A friend may or may not be a person to whom there is a strong relationship. A friend might be a casual acquaintance or an intimate companion. Friends may have known each other since childhood or they may have recently met.

Americans usually have different circles of friends such as church friends, work friends, or sport friends. One’s friend from different circles may never meet. Even in daily speech, they usually say ‘office mate’ and ‘tennis partner’. The office mate is a friend in the office and the tennis partner is a friend on the court. In general, Americans are mobile, and they learn to form and end friendships easily and quickly. http://www.udel.edu/eli/2006P4L/shad-handout.pdf There is the problem of personal space and boundaries between the Americans and the foreign students also. Let’s see how personal space is defined: We define personal space as the area surrounding a person that he/she considers his territory or domain. Crossing or entering someone else’s personal space creates discomfort because he/she feels the physical intimacy exceeds the relational intimacy. Keep in mind though, too much space can cause discomfort and indicate rudeness as well. The size of the personal space bubble varies by culture and situation.


Americans raise their children teaching about this personal space-air bubble and how they should not get too close to other people or how they should not invade their space. In other countries this might not be so. For example Middle Easterners cuddle and kiss their children a lot and this is considered normal. The child in return learns to express his/her feelings by hugging and kissing and there is nothing wrong with this as long as it is done with the same sex. The other day, I was at an elementary school, picking up a friend’s sister and it was an international school. I noticed that the kids from other cultures were standing closer to the teachers and to each other and even touching them in a friendly way. However, American children were more reserved about that. Alternatively, European people may have shorter distances when talking to other people. The closer people feel emotionally to each other the closer they will stand to each other. So Americans may misinterpret it when European women or men are standing close to them. In the same way if you want people to feel comfortable around you, the golden rule is ‘keep your distance’.

The more intimate our relationship is with other people, the closer they will permit us to move within their zones. For example, a new work employee may initially feel that the other staff members are cold towards him, but they are only keeping him in the Social Zone until they know him better. As he becomes better known to them, the distance between them decreases until eventually he is permitted to move within their Personal Zones and, in some cases, their Intimate Zones. Moving into the intimate zone of the opposite sex is a way of showing interest in that person and is commonly called an advance.


The model of friendship is very different according to Americans and other cultures and this is explained very well in the Website of Cornell University Americans are often very friendly and helpful to people that they do not know well and they may also be more open in what they talk about than people from many other countries. This can be confusing to someone who comes from a country where people are initially more reserved. An international student may also feel that Americans are superficial or are not good friends when this initial friendliness does not continue as friendship. A model of friendship referred to by Margaret Pusch, president of the National Association of International Educators, may help us understand some of the differences. Sometimes known as the “wall theory,” it describes two patterns of friendship: one American and one found in many other countries.

American | Other Countries|
The American pattern shows how Americans are initially very friendly and open: as symbolized by the first wall being very low. However, American values stress privacy and independence, and the walls become higher and higher before one reaches the stage of a good friendship (represented by the Xs in the center of the diagram). Thus, many international students are very happy when the American they meet is so friendly and open. However, when the American does not continue to act in a way that the international student expects of a friend, the international student is disappointed and confused. They may sometimes conclude that Americans are superficial and do not really know how to be friends. What the international student may not realize is that they have not yet reached the stage of being good friends with the American: they need to go over some “higher walls” before reaching the center and a good friendship.

Alternatively, Americans living in a country where people are more reserved and not as initially friendly as in the US, may sometimes become discouraged about ever making friends in that country: they may feel that people in their host country are very unfriendly. When meeting people from other countries, it may be helpful to keep this model in mind, or to think about what model might be used to describe your own country’s patterns of friendship. It is also important to be aware that ways of getting to know someone may be different in different countries, and to try to avoid making judgments about the people of that country.


As a summary, we see that the cultural differences rise from several factors starting from the type of country we have been raised in, the concept of friendship and how much friends can demand from each other, the way we are brought up, thenotion of personal space or personal boundaries and what we expect of friendships. Ways of getting to know people may  be different in different countries, so we must not make judgments about people right away. Besides, people of a certain nation cannot be put into certain patterns and certain differences are bound to take place.

RAIDS analysis for assignment 2:
Revision: Students who come to study in the United States or anybody who comes to the US for any reason will know what to expect about friendship, so they won’t be disappointed when they find a different kind of friendship here. People will know how to leave a space between himself/herself and the other while talking to them. In other words he/she will learn about the personal space or personal boundaries. Not only people who come to the US but also American people who go abroad to other countries would know what to expect. Arrangement: I arranged my information according to my thesis sentence. 1. Nature of the countries 2. What we understand from the term ’friend’ and how it really is in the United States. 3. How we are brought up and what we know about personal space or personal boundaries. 4. Our expectations from our friends according to our culture and what is expected of us here. My sources were from the Internet mostly. The subjects I wrote on Google were * How can a foreign student make friends with the Americans?

* Setting personal boundaries
* How do Americans teach their children about personal space?
* Personal Space
* Friendship in the United States
* Are Americans and their friendship superficial?
* Friendship- American Style
* How do Americans set boundaries with other people or people from other nations?
* American Values: Friendship
* Friendship in America

Delivery: I did my research according to my assignment. My assignment was about my experience on friendship. I put forth some questions 1. How can I make friends with the Americans? 2. Are American friendships superficial? 3. Do I need to set boundaries or use personal space with my American Friends?

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