How Our Culture Impacts Relationships

When I first came to the U.S. from China, I was surprised but also delighted by the American enthusiasm I saw all around me: the big hugs and “perfects” and “I love yous” were so different from the much quieter and indirect culture in China.

In fact, research has found that in Western cultures, failure to directly express appreciation can have negative outcomes. Not being expressive can make someone upset (“You never even said ‘thanks’”) or make them question what it might mean (“Don’t you love me anymore?”).

However, in high-context cultures like China, appreciation is often expressed in indirect ways. Culturally, the social environment is much more focused on harmony, which requires each individual to contribute and participate as part of the social fabric. Standing out isn’t the most desirable thing, which means that directly and verbally expressing appreciation to someone might be similar to singling the person out. Even if it is for a good cause, that singling out might result in embarrassment. 

In stark contrast, Bellow found that “low-context cultures are much more likely to engage in overt and verbal expressions of thanks.” Take American hero movies (Marvel movies for instance!): there is often one hero who saves the world and receives appreciation. In this case, direct verbal and enthusiastic appreciation is highly desired.

And knowing these differences might help us in relationships, especially intercultural ones. Just remember that appreciation is just one part of a relationship. Bear in mind the general trend of cultural differences, but also keep your mind open and remember that each individual has their own way of showing love and appreciation.

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