Men, Women, and Friendship

Though sharing defines close friendships, there's a noted gender divide in the way people express intimacy. It was some years ago that researchers documented what any perceptive wife had already observed during televised play-offs (pick your sport, it hardly matters): Her husband invited over his friends and there they sat, shoulder to shoulder, absorbed in the game. After the game was over, they indulged in some armchair quarterbacking, and then the friends left. In other words, men conducted their friendships by doing something, and when they talked to each other, they preferred topics like cars or sports rather than themselves. Women conducted friendships by sharing information about themselves, their emotions, and their relationships. Women related "face-to-face" and men related "side-to-side."

These differences are just as true today. My ex-husband could be the poster child for the prototypical male friend.

He's maintained good friendships with guys he met in ninth grade and can talk endlessly on the phone with them about whatever computer game is their current obsession. They can spend hours sharing information about the biggest monster defeated or their new avatar without once mentioning their personal lives, careers, health, or state of mind.

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Does one gender have it over the other when it comes to being close? Experts disagree. Barbara J. Bank, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-Columbia, writing with Suzanne Hanford in the journal Personal Relationships, contends that men's friendships are indeed less intimate and supportive than women's. Theorists acknowledge that intimacy is crucial to friendship and that talking about one's life (or, as a male friend of mine jokingly calls it, "the dreaded sharing") is more likely to facilitate intimacy than something like sharing computer game tips.

Sociologist Scott Swain, on the other hand, says the male version of intimacy is powerful, too. Swain has coined the term "closeness in the doing" to describe the intimacy men achieve when they do stuff with their pals, be it drinking, backpacking, or rebuilding their car engines. In the mode of Ben Franklin, men express intimacy by helping each other: assisting with investment advice or lending tools. Male affection has been called "covert"—razzing and backslapping, indirect signs of intimacy, may be quintessential expressions of brotherly love.

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