Is Friendship Cultural?: My Experience in Armenia
Every American has heard or lived this story: you go about your day in a big city. You are surrounded by thousands of people, on the streets, in your office, on the train, but you are lonely. All of these people are searching for personal connections, but can’t connect to each other. Is it because of social media? Psychology? Does science have an answer for us? My experience in Armenia tells me that there are some answers to be found in culture.
[Quick note before I continue: This is not a study, and is simply my observations, so of course I have made many generalizations. I know that all Armenians and all Americans do not have these experiences, and I don’t want to minimize different ones. In fact, please comment below and we’ll discuss!]
In America, we have many levels of friendship. When you meet someone, they are first a stranger. They may then become an acquaintance, a friend, a good friend, and maybe even a best friend. At a certain point, probably the friend level, you would invite them to your house. Maybe if you are good friends, you will exchange gifts. If you are good friends, you may call them up on a random day to meet.
In the words of an Armenian friend, “here, you’re either friends or you’re not.” You can invite someone to your house, or out to dinner even if you’ve never met them before. You will most likely give them gifts the first time you meet, and maybe discuss life stories. After the first meeting, you can even invite yourself over to their house (not rude for Armenians), keep a lasting connection with them, and even ask them for help.
Seriously. Think about the last time you asked somebody for help. I’ve been pushed to ask for help by necessity in Armenia, but I still do it with a lot of embarrassment and guilt.
Take this example: the idea for this article was born from a very Armenian interaction. During my time volunteering in Yerevan, someone in my office struck up a conversation with me. He invited me to see the office of another NGO he was working with, and, of course, made me coffee. Our coffee chat became a deep, two hour discussion (and rant) about our frustrations with America (he is originally from the US too) and the differences between the two cultures. He then offered to help me with the video I was working on, and I spent the next day with him at another NGO, where he introduced me to some of his other friends.
I just would never think to do that at home. I would maybe invite a new friend out for coffee, but I probably wouldn’t cook for them, or introduce them to other friends for another month at least.
Another example: Last week, I asked a friend of a friend from Tavush if we could meet him there. He said he would not be in the region, but introduced me to three women from Aygedzor village. We messaged a bit on Facebook, and when I got there, my mom and I ended up at the home of one of the women, in front of a table full of gata, cake, fresh fruit, dried fruit, homemade wine, and too many other things to list. From there she took us to a factory in the village, where we met the manager, who showed us around. After that, we went to hike with about five of her friends who showed us around, told us stories, and, of course, fed us more. A couple days later, we ran into the manager of the factory on the street, and ended up invited to dinner with him and a whole group of other family and friends, one of whom was...another person I'd been introduced to on Facebook.
I could go on and on with this. I’ve eaten at many houses of random people I’ve met off the street or on Facebook. I’ve exchanged personal information with people I’ve spent a day, or even less, with. I have lasting friendships here built out of chance encounters, or simple generosity.
Armenians are famous for their hospitality, but this tradition is much deeper than inviting strangers into their houses for coffee. It is a culture of higher expectations for your obligations to the people around you, and many traditions surrounding this. It is the kind of generosity where people who are struggling to support their family will send you home with five different homemade foods and not let you refuse. It is the openness of people are willing to help no matter what they’re doing, and be warm and friendly no matter the situation. This openness among Armenians is the only reason I’m able to have such a wide and deep network here is because of the friendliness of strangers, and their willingness to help me even though they had no reason to.
The American system of friendship is something that I, as an American, just took for granted. That’s just how things are. I simply never considered that something as everyday as making friends could be different in different cultures, until the frustrations of living abroad forced the issue. But I think it’s a valuable lesson: there are many things that we take for granted as universal, but it is important to consider that they may not be. It can save us from frustrations, and give us new possibilities for how we live our lives.
Personally, experiencing friendship in Armenia has given me the motivation to change the way that I treat other people: close friends and strangers alike. It has challenged me to think about my conventions, and question what I do and why. It has given me a goal to be more generous and open.
What’s important in your culture of friendship?