Highland High School
Psychology, 5th block
How 4,500 Miles Change a Friendship
By Esther M. Nagel, 2008
Purpose: This case study is about long-distance friendships. All cognitions are based on personal experiences.
Living in a time of increasing globalization, distances between friends are growing. Not only do adults move for jobs, and consequently quit the social environment they are used to, but also students decide to leave their home countries and to live abroad for a certain period of time. When the students arrive in the host-country, they have to deal with the physical and mental distance from their friends at home. The purpose of this case study is to demonstrate how 4,500 miles change a friendship.
Hypothesis: Before the exchange program starts, neither the friends who stay at home, nor the student leaving the country know if the long distance is going to change the friendship in a positive or in a negative way. Only one thing is for sure: The friendship is going to change.
Methods: As stated previously, all cognitions are based on personal experiences. I left my home-country, Germany, in August 2007, and have been living in the United States since then. I attend Highland High School and stay at a host-family. The main way of communicating with friends and family at home is via internet. I will probably go back to Germany in June.
Conclusion: A long-distance friendship is complicated. There is a high risc that the friends are going to drift apart, step by step. Routine can be a good prevention of this progress. It helps the friends to keep in touch, and to not dissociate mentally. However, in some cases the friendship is not strong enough, too complicated, or too egoistic to stay maintained over several months.
The French author Antoine de Saint Exupéry once wrote the sentence “Friends are gardens that you can relax in”. However, such gardens want to be tended, just like friendships. But what if the friend lives some thousand miles away for ten months? How the involved persons cope with that situation depends on several aspects.
One of these aspects is what the friends see as their principles in a friendship. For some the most important thing between friends is to have the feeling that the others person is always there for him/her. The friend has to be available at any time and has to be reliable. Thus, time differences and a lack of ways to communicate can cause problems. When you need someone to talk to at 8 p.m. in Illinois, it may not be the best idea to call your friend back in Germany. The obvious reason not to do so is that the friend is most likely sleeping. The second reason to think twice if to call the person or not is that he/she has probably little relation to the problem overseas. During the time apart from eachother friends are confronted with completely different worries. The one who is staying at home can barely relate to the other one’s problems with his/her host-family, and the person abroad is not involved in the problems the friend is facing at school in the home-country. This situation is especially crucial for persons in whose opinion it is most important to always feel near and connected to a friend.
Nevertheless, one should not be too hesitatant to contract a friend that lives far away. There should be contact at regular intervals. Otherwise the friends are more likely to estrange from eachother and the casualness and naturalness of the friendship vanish. For example, the familiarity has reached a critical phase when one feels like calling the friend, but hesitates, because he/she is not sure if the other one would be offended at an only five-minute lasting call. The solution for this problem is routine. Routine does not enjoy a good reputation. Routine is generally perceived as bad and uncool. It is important to see that routine, in fact,
helps to bridge the time between real meetings. When friends start calling eachother only when there “is a special occasion”, only ask for the other one’s advice or approval in extreme situations, normal and unexciting calls become progressively difficult.
Even with an existing routine, it is hard to keep being up-to-date with the friend’s experiences. Daily contact, in form of online-chats, or weekly telephone calls, cannot even nearly replace the contact to eachother when there had not been a long distance between one another yet.
On the other hand, the given situation has advantages. Back to the routine-theory: Assuming that the friends agree to call eachother once a week, every Sunday, the friendship will profit. You talk about current events. Big ones and small ones. Important things and less important things. School and friends. Itineraries and parties.
Sometimes it is not anything dramatic at all. Still, the calls usually last for more than an hour. The question arises if the conversations were the same if there was not such a big distance in-between. You would hang out after school or go out on the weekends. But would you really? Or would usually something intervene and take away the time for the friend? Just like nobody visits the sights of his/her own town. Maybe we try harder to keep a friendship alive, when we do not live right next to eachother.
To succeed, the friends need to have sympathy and common experiences. It is important that they undersand that the other one is completely living where he/she is now. Both persons find new friends and have to deal with their own problems. Some friends are disapponted when they don’t hear from eachother very often. They take it personally and develop a negative attitude towards the other person. Often they decide to remove themselves mentally from their friend to tolerate the disappointment. With a distance of some thousand miles, this movement can have fatal consequences. Or they approach the other one and report the own uncertainties and difficulties. This action can cost quite an effort. But this effort is often rewarded by a big relief: After all, the other one is still the good, old friend.
To come to this conclucion, both sides have to listen. Listening plays a huge role in maintaining a friendship. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to comprehend a friend’s message. When the only was of communication is via e-mails and online-chats, the process gets even more complex. Misunderstandings result from misinterpreted words. In the same manner, listening affects a different aspect, as well: Especially when messages are solely exchanged online, one of the involved persons can get the impression the other one would not really respond to his/her own messages, and as a consequence the person feels unappreciated. The involved persons have to find a middle course.
So far all observations concerned really good, close friends. But surely one has, next to the few best friends, also many acquaintances that are not as close. Everyone who spent time abroad as an exchange student can probably agree that the contact to those persons is unually very maeger. Yes, there are e-mails, there are good wishes for Christmas and birthdays, but, except of that, you truly do not have much contact to them. Before one leaves, it is hard to imagine how seldom you will hear from another person in the next couple of months. You would never hesitate to call the other one a friend of yours; all the more it is astonishing and even sad, how quickly you have almost forgotten this person. It does not take long till new experiences and new friends make one forget about any doubts and duties one had felt at the beginning.
As the time goes by, and the flight back to the home-country comes closer and closer, one might overthink his/her ignorance. The question arrises, if there will not be any complications at all, if those friendships will have to be built completely new, or if both persons have changed so drastically that a friendship will not be possible anymore. Nobody can say yet.
Analysis: The idea for this case study arose for obvious reasons: I will go home in only some weeks, and I am sure that it will be weird. Over the months, the contact to some of my friends that I would have considered as pretty good ones, has dies completely. In some cases, I am sure that the arisen distance will not make a difference. To other friends, I have probably even had too much contact, considering that an exchange year should be a year away from all familiar surroundings. However, I do not regret this circumstance, although it might have been easier to make new friends, if the old ones would not have been so near.