09 February 2007

Friendships and gender differences

This is a subject on which I've been reflecting recently, and I would be interested in hearing what others think about it.

Granted, of course, that everyone needs friends. Yet friendships are different from each other, with varying degrees of intimacy. North Americans have a tendency to call virtually anyone they know a friend, though they might better label most of these as mere acquaintances or perhaps something in between. Friends are drawn together by similar personalities, values, interests and life goals. It is not easy to analyze rationally why certain people become friends to each other. They just do.

What I find intriguing is the different ways that friendships develop between women and between men. We're probably familiar with the pattern pointed out by Rannveig Traustadottir in Gender Patterns in Friendship:

Despite this historical romanticization of the male friendship, researchers have found that men have significantly fewer friends than women, especially close friendships or best friends (Bell, 1981; Block, 1980; Fasteau, 1991; Smith, 1983). Although the majority of men may not have close friends they do not conduct their lives in isolation. Block (1980) found that most of the men in his study had a variety of same-sex relationships. These include what Block calls "activity friends," such as a weekly tennis partner or drinking buddies; "convenience friends" where the relationship is based on the exchange of favors; and "mentor friends" typically between a younger and an older man. While women's friendships are usually defined as self-revealing, accepting, and intimate, men usually shy away from intimacy and closeness.

Women, it is said, conduct their friendships "face-to-face" by sharing thoughts and feelings with each other. Men, on the other hand, do so "side-by-side" by, for example, watching a televised football game or sharing some other activity. Women's friendships are about each other, whereas men's friendships are about a shared something outside themselves.

To be sure, even watching sporting events can be a bonding experience. Yet I wonder whether men — especially of my generation and older — are not missing out by failing to seek out friends who will become confidants and with whom they share mutual affection. Or is this expecting too much? Are men of the younger generation better at this than older men?

Just curious.

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