After all, most research has been developed and conducted in Northern American or Western and Northern European countries – and people in these countries live in quite different social realities and ‘social networks’ than people in other parts of the world.
For instance, people in these countries are often more independent from their families: More people live alone, and they mostly make their own decisions rather than consulting with their relatives. As such, they often have more freedom to choose themselves how they live their lives, and are freer to distance themselves from others they do not get along with. This allows them to seek friends and partners who they feel good around, but it also makes them more likely to find themselves alone or socially isolated – for instance, because they cannot find others who they want to be with or who want to be with them, or because they have cut contact with their families.
By contrast, in other parts of the world, it is often uncommon to leave one’s parents’ home before marrying – or to leave it at all. In many cultures, newlywed couples stay (or move in) with the husband’s family. Also, it is often not an option not to marry. Although hierarchies and rules about how one should meet others exist in all cultures (e.g., how one should greet and interact with elders, whether or not one should be in romantic relationships outside marriage, what one can tell to friends), such norms are often more defined and stricter in these cultures. People have less freedom to choose who they enter friendships or relationships with and how they relate to others, but they are also less likely to end up entirely isolated. Nevertheless, according to research, people in these cultures feel at least as lonely as those in cultures where people are less embedded in family relationships.
Since reasons for feeling lonely and even the entire experience of loneliness may be quite different across cultures, we therefore wanted to examine whether the meaning of ‘loneliness’ and the experiences it describes are similar across cultures where people are less versus more embedded in stable family relationships.
Our interviews in Austria, Bulgaria, Israel, Egypt, and India suggest that loneliness experiences are surprisingly similar across cultures. Specifically, people from different countries described similar types of feelings when they had felt lonely (e.g., feeling isolated, separate or closed off from others), provided similar types of reasons for why they had felt lonely (e.g., feeling different from others, feeling misunderstood, being separated from loved ones), and described similar remedies (e.g., activities they enjoyed, new enriching relationships, withdrawing from others and spending time alone). You can find many of their answers in the videos on this website.
Interestingly, most interviewees did not feel lonely because they generally had too few friends, were too much alone, or had too few good relationships. Instead, feelings of loneliness often emerged in a specific situation where people had felt different, misunderstood, excluded, or not sufficiently supported by others. You can maybe remember having felt lonely when there were disharmonies in your partnership, or at a party where you did not fit in. Other interviewees even reported to have felt lonely when they had faced a problem (e.g., financial issues, the sickness of a family member), had needed to make an important decision (e.g., in their work place), or did not find their own purpose in life.
Importantly, this does not mean that everyone within a culture or across different cultures had similar loneliness experiences. In fact, loneliness experiences seem to be very diverse – the loneliness of one person can feel different from the loneliness of another person, and can have very different origins. Our findings only indicate that, in different cultures, why and when people can feel lonely does not seem to differ much.
Despite these similarities, we observed some cultural differences between the specific situations that had caused or reduced loneliness. For instance, interviewees in all countries reported having felt lonely after ending a partnership. However, what exactly that meant differed. For instance, in Egyptian or Indian samples, it was uncommon to be physically intimate with, or live together with a partner that one was not married to. As such, the end of a romantic relationship usually meant dissolving an engagement: an emotional connection that promised a shared future. This is quite different from what an ended partnership meant in the Israeli, Bulgarian, and Austrian samples, where the termination of a relationship often referred to losing the one person to be physically (and, for some, also only person to be emotionally) intimate with, moving houses, getting used to living alone again, etc. In our view, the fact that these people lived in such different social realities and experienced loneliness in different concrete situations makes it all the more fascinating that loneliness and its more general causes and remedies seem to be similar across different cultures.
You can find a link to the scientific paper here.