Male and Female Friendships

Men and Women approach friendship differently

Sometimes a woman wonders why her boyfriend or husband doesn’t talk that much. And men may wonder why women are always wanting to talk about things, wanting deeper conversations.

two young mean hug each other.

If you had a camera you could videotape the gender gap. Women literally touch each other more; they sit closer together, focus on one-to-one sharing.

But when men talk about what they do with their friends, you get a different portrait: men doing things together in groups. … Men do not criticize their friends as much as women, but neither do they communicate the kind of acceptance women count on from their friends. Men put shared interests highest among the reasons they bond with a friend, while women first want friends who share their values. And even men tend to view their friendships with women as closer and more intimate than those with men.                                                — Ellen Goodman and Patricia O’Brien, p.54

In the earlier pages, descriptions of making friends through conversations and doing things with each other were difficult to write, realizing that most women place a much greater importance on the conversations and most men focus more on doing things with other men. And, as the quote above points out, friendships between men and women fall somewhere in between.

Ellen Goodman and Patricia O’Brien are close friends who wrote a book together: I Know Just What You Mean: The Power of Friendship in Women’s Lives. In the first chapter they each describe how they met and they try to define friendship.

Friends? What’s a friend? If the Eskimos have twenty-six different words for snow, Americans have only one word commonly used to describe everyone from acquaintances to intimates. It is a word we have to qualify with adjectives: school friends, work friends, old friends, casual friends, good friends.

But this catch-all word doesn’t catch everything, especially how we describe a truly intimate friend. A chosen relative? Bonded, but not by blood? When we asked women how they define what a close friend is, they leaped past such qualifiers to describe the impact: being known and accepted, understood to the core; feeling you can count on trust and loyalty; having someone on your side; having someone to share worries and secrets as well as the good stuff of life; someone who needs you in return.  pp.18-19

Many of the best books for girls, from Anne of Green Gables to the Diary of Anne Frank, include their yearning for a special friend. While many girls have a best friend in elementary school and perhaps through high school, in the world where people so often are moved from one place to another by parents or schools or jobs, I don’t think most women have any friendships that could be described by the above quote. But we do, perhaps, continue to yearn for this sort of relationship.

Later in the book Goodman and O’Brien discuss the great puzzle of how men seem to mean something different by friendship. “Did men share the important stuff of life with their friends?”

Ellen describes an incident she had observed.Two men work together to paint a house

I told her about Richard, a neighbor in Evanston, whose parents had just been killed in a horrible auto accident. One morning shortly after that, as I walked to the train, I noticed that Richard and another neighbor had started scraping the old paint off his house. For the next two weeks I watched them out there early every morning, scraping, and then painting one coat after another, up on ladders, near each other. I never saw then talk, and once I wondered fleetingly if there was some tension between them. Then I ran into Richard’s wife on the train one day and commented on how nice her newly painted house looked.

“Yes,” she said quietly, “Jerry spent two weeks of his vacation helping Richard get the job done.”

I asked her whether the two men, old friends, talked much about the loss.

“Hardly at all,”she said. “But I don’t think Richard could have made it through without him.”    pp. 51-52

The differences are already obvious in sixth grade. The women describe a study by Surrey and Bergman where they looked at questions girls asked about boys and questions boys asked about girls.

The girls asked why boys don’t cry, why they beat each other up, why they don’t talk much, and why they don’t talk about anything interesting. The boys asked what girls do all day, why everything is such a big deal, why they gossip all the time, why they whisper and giggle, and “What’s up with all that sighing and crying?”   pp.57-58

Ellen had a conversation with Senator John Kerry and discussed his book. “Kerry, a Vietnam War Veteran, then talked at length about how close men become in combat, when the fear and intensity breaks down traditional male barriers to intimacy. He said that when men leave the battlefield for home, the old ways reassert themselves — except perhaps when they are reunited with their army buddies.”  p. 60

At one point the authors summarize the difference between men and women.

 Let us start with the obvious: women do friendship differently than men. Among women, friendship is conducted face-to-face. But as Carolyn Heilbrun once wrote, “Male friends do not always face each other; they stand side by side, facing the world.” While women tend to be together, men tend to do together. p. 52

Male-Female Friendships

From what I have found and known personally, male-female friendships can be very different. Sometimes they are based on long conversations, similar to a friendship between two women without all the sentiment. Other times they are more based on doing things together like a friendship between two men. Many fall somewhere in between. I have experienced all of these.

Understanding that there are different sorts of friendships can be very helpful. When you form friendships with someone of the opposite sex, it is important to understand that their ideas and experiences of  friendships are not like yours. Instead of expecting this person to relate to you like your other friends, it would be wise to find ways to combine the two. You might spend some time talking and some time doing things together.

Developing good friends of the opposite sex is helpful before thinking of romance

If you meet someone of the opposite sex and begin dating right away, you may well get involved romantically with a person you don’t really like. You might also find that your expectations in the relationship are quite different in many ways: how often to see or call or text each other; finding a balance between study time, time with other friends, and time with each other; showing affection before getting to know each other; different expectations regarding sex.

After several awkward experiences, I learned to start by getting to know the guys before I accepted a real date. When someone I didn’t know well asked me out, I explained that I’d like to get to know him better before dating and suggested lunch in the cafeteria, having a snack together during a study break, or just taking a walk together (in daylight), maybe stopping to sit on a bench to look at the view and talk a while. I discovered quickly that those who objected weren’t the type of people I wanted to know anyway. Most of the guys were actually relieved by the suggestion, agreeing that a “date” wasn’t really the best way to get to know each other.

Some of the guys I met this way turned out to be good friends but nothing more. With some, friendship grew into a dating relationship. With others, of course, we soon realized we didn’t really like each other.

Link:  Romantic Relationships