I often hear something like the following from first-time visitors to the U.S., including many who are I-House residents: “Americans are so friendly.” Sometimes after this comes a comment along the lines of, “…but they’re very superficial.”
In the study of intercultural relations one “dimension” of culture that has been proposed (by Dutch consultant Fons Trompenaars) is “specific” vs. “diffuse.” It’s not at all clear what these names mean, so sometimes people use a metaphor of peaches vs. coconuts.
The U.S. is a peach culture. Just as peaches are easy to cut with a knife, it’s easy to “get in” part of the way — to have a nice, welcoming conversation with a U.S. American, for instance, and to learn a few details about their lives. Often newcomers will think that this means they have a genuine new friend, and they end up disappointed when their emails to the new “friend” go unanswered later. They have bumped up against the “pit” of the peach: you can only go so far in before it becomes much more difficult to go further.
Another part of the peach metaphor is the way in which U.S. Americans tend to segment their lives into different social groups: their work colleagues, their running group, maybe a parent volunteer organization at their school, etc. It would be normal for there to be little or no overlap among these groups.
Coconut cultures, on the other hand, are harder to “penetrate,” but once you’re in, you’re in everywhere: it’s reasonable to expect to socialize with your colleagues after work, for instance, because social groups aren’t segmented in the same way as they are in peach cultures. This can trip up U.S. Americans working in coconut cultures, as I have experienced firsthand: In China I was often expected to socialize with colleagues outside of work, which I confess I have never come close to mastering.
These differences are related to individualism and collectivism, and how “ingroups” form in different cultures — a topic which will come up now and again in later posts to this blog.
The metaphor is an oversimplification, of course. And we aren’t all “peaches” in the U.S., just as not everyone from a “coconut culture” is a “coconut.” As with any broad concept like this, we shouldn’t take it too seriously by itself. It’s just a useful guideline for understanding some differences among cultures.