Do Men and Women Do Friendship Differently?
Research helps explain differences and similarities in women and men friends.
Posted Jul 06, 2018
One night when my husband and I were having dinner with several other couples, I mentioned that I was writing a book on women’s friendships. Kevin*, a colleague and friend, said, “I’ve always wished that I could have friendships like you women do.” I asked what he believed was special about women’s friendships. He said, “The ability to talk about your deepest feelings and thoughts with each other. I think that must give you a sense of being deeply connected in a way that we men don’t get from each other.”
Around the table I saw many different reactions. Two men and one of the women were nodding in agreement. But one woman shook her head and said, “That’s a romantic fantasy. I don’t have friends like that. I don’t think many women really do.”
Another woman remarked, “Oh, I do. I don’t know how I would get through life without my close women friends.” Someone else said that she saw many of her friends only occasionally, but that when they got together they couldn’t stop talking. “And it’s not all about deep feelings. We just love to share what’s going on in our lives.”
A man said, “I don’t know. I’ve seen a lot of awful stuff go on between women who are supposed to be friends.” But then Kevin answered, “Yes, that’s true, I’ve seen that too. But still, there’s some kind of emotional connection that we men don’t get to.” (excerpted from I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives)
So how different are friendships between men and women?
It seems that the answer to this question is kind of murky. In a blog post on differences in men and women’s friendships, my PT colleague, Ronald Riggio, author of numerous books and articles on organizational psychology (including Leadership Studies: The Dialogue of Disciplines), tells us that research shows that men tend to be friends around activities, like exchanging tools, fixing cars, going to sporting events, or traveling, while women are more likely to share emotions and talk about feelings. Yet in my own interviews with more than 200 men and women, I heard many examples of women who were friends through activities (walking, writing, and book groups, for instance) and men who shared a deep emotional connection with their friends. In an interview we did together for NPR’s On Point, Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation and You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships, noted that while there are differences between women and men, there are many similarities as well.
And in his post, Ron Riggio goes on to say that research shows that while there are ways that men’s and women’s friendships differ, “the similarities tend to outweigh the differences.”
But many of us carry around the belief that my friend Kevin expressed, that women have closer and more emotionally intense friendships than men. Unfortunately, this belief has a powerful and sometimes negative effect on both women and men. Susie Orbach and Luise Eichenbaum, who founded the Women’s Therapy Center in New York Center and wrote Between Women, write that focusing on emotional attunement as an ideal of friendship can create problems for women when anger, guilt, disappointment, and other so-called unattuned feelings emerge, as they will in most close relationships.
This image of women’s friendships also bothers a number of men, not just because they feel, as my friend Kevin did, that they are missing out on something important, but because many men have deep emotional connections to their friends, both male and female. For instance, Herb*, a married professional in his fifties, lives with his wife and sons in a small town in Pennsylvania. He has been part of a group of male friends since college. “We’ve been together through marriages and divorces. We’ve celebrated the births of our babies and supported one another when kids have gotten into trouble. Right now we’re dealing with the drug addiction of one friend’s kid, the illness of another’s parents – actually, all of our parents are suddenly, it seems, getting older. Anyway, we’re there for each other. Sure, we talk sports and work, but we also talk about our feelings. I don’t know, maybe it’s not in the same way that women talk about their feelings, but … is there just one way to talk about these things?”
Geoffrey Greif, author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, describes research that contradicts the claim that men’s friendships are less emotionally intimate than women’s, and in fact, that suggests that “the ability of men or women to receive support from others may be, in the final analysis, linked more to one’s genes than to one’s gender.” So maybe, just maybe, it’s not that women do friendship better than men; or even that men and women do friendship so differently. Maybe it’s that each person does friendship in her or his own way. And maybe that’s really OK.
Here’s the thing: So far, there doesn’t seem to be any really definitive answer to this question. In fact, it seems that many of us have our own, very different ideas about male and female friendships. I would love it if you would share some of your own thoughts, beliefs, and experiences about these differences and similarities in the comment section below. (However, please don't send me private messages requesting advice, as I'm unfortunately not able to answer them.) Many thanks, as always!
*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy
I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives by Diane Barth Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2018
Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships
by Geoffrey Greif Oxford University Press 2008
How Are Men’s Friendships Different From Women’s? by Ronald E. Riggio Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201410/how-are-men-s-friendships-different-women-s
You're the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women's Friendships by Deborah Tannen Ballantine Books 2017
You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen William Morris Paperback 2007