Building Friendships

Some people, when they first arrive in the United States, say that Americans are very friendly, but after living in the United States for a while, they change their minds. One international student explained that when he first came, people were very friendly. They helped him to get settled, took him shopping, invited him for dinner, and called to see how he was. After two or three weeks, however, they stopped doing these things, and he was confused and disappointed.

Americans tend to do what is necessary to help people when they first arrive. They "go all out" doing many things to help the others get settled and often make the new arrivals feel like a part of the family. The newcomers expect this warm hospitality to continue in the form of a solid friendship. However, Americans expect that once people are settled and have been here a few weeks, they will begin to do things for themselves and become independent.

Like other aspects of culture, friendship is perceived differently in various parts of the world. In this section, we will discuss friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. As we discuss friendship in the United States, compare it with friendship as it is practiced in your culture. Share this information with your classmates.

Friendships Across Cultures

Idioms and Expressions

Here is a list of common idioms and expressions used in the United States to describe friends and friendship. Can you explain what each means? Do you have similar expressions in your language?

  • Fair-weathered friend
  • Lady friend
  • Girlfriend/boyfriend
  • Blood brothers
  • Birds of a feather flock together
  • One rotten apple spoils the whole bunch
  • A friend in need is a friend indeed
  • Familiarity breeds contempt

Now list idioms and expressions associated with friendships in your language. Translate them into English and then share them with the class.


The word friend in the United States has a broad meaning, including everyone from a casual acquaintance to a long-time best friend. The following chart describes some of these levels of friendship.

Term Definition Customary Behavior
Neighbor Someone who lives next door, across the street, or on the same block Neighbors generally say hello when they see each other. Some become good friends. They often help each other, borrow things, and watch each other's houses when no one is home.
Acquaintance Someone you have been introduced to but do not know well Acquaintances generally say hello when they meet and make small talk.
Best Friend Someone you can rely on and would feel comfortable asking for assistance at any time Best friends generally share good and bad times together and spend free time together.
Boyfriend/Girlfriend Someone of the opposite sex for whom you have romantic feelings Go on dates, share affection, walk arm and arm in public.
Girlfriend A female friend of another woman (men and boys do not refer to their male friends as boyfriends) Spend time together and share common interests.
Classmate A student in your class Classmates say hello, make small talk, and sometimes study together.
Business associate or colleague Someone who works in the same place of business as you do Colleagues share business information, discuss problems related to their work, and occasionally socialize.

Let's Share

Exercise #1: Describe the type of relationship people in your country have with:

  • Neighbors
  • Acquaintances
  • Best Friends
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends

Exercise #2: Are there other categories of friendship in your culture? Please explain. Share this information with fellow class members.

Exercise #3:  Now that we have discussed friends and the different levels of friendship, take a few minutes to think about your friends at home in your country. Working in pairs, find out from your partner the answers to the following questions:

  • Who is your partner's best friend?
  • What makes this friend so special?
  • Was there one thing this friend did that showed him or her to be a true friend?
  • What does your partner remember best about this friend?
  • Ask your partner to tell you about an especially important experience that he or she shared with this special friend.
Material taken from Culturally Speaking by Rhona Genzal and Martha Cummings, Harper & Row, 1986