Gender Differences in How Friendships Are Done

The last quarter of the 20th century opened up a new perspective on gender roles and gender enactment. As androgyny became more acceptable for both genders, men were invited to explore their feminine side concurrently with the birth of the “metrosexual” movement. Although many men may be uncomfortable with the idea, even mainstream masculine consumer product marketing is flirting with inviting men to acknowledge their more emotional sides. A decade ago, a series of beer commercials used a tagline that became a part of media culture; the deep voiced “I love you, man” admission still resonates and the tagline was also the name of a hugely popular man-flick.

The portrayal of “regular guys” acknowledging their deeper feelings over campfires, ballgames, or gas grills grew traction as it humorously supported the breach of an unspoken cultural taboo against the expression of affection for another man. “How-to” guides appeared online to help men share an acceptable “man hug,” which takes a humorous dig at the strong antipathy society communicates towards public displays of affection between heterosexual men. Regardless of the apparent easing of cultural constraints, evidence of a gender divide regarding social interaction with friends is not hard to find.

Men don’t Expect their Friends to Bare their Souls

Compared to women, men are less likely to participate in self-disclosure with their same-gender friends – including the discussion of feelings and fears. Women also enjoy more emotional support exchanges with others outside their nuclear families than men do. Brain scans indicate that men actually do experience distress when they talk about personal feelings and emotions. The would prefer to engage in less intimate discussions with friends and stick to current or topical events and they would prefer the conversation include more people than women might. It has been suggested that these differences can be traced back to evolutionary patterns of survival instincts and behavior.

Women, however, were traditionally expected to leave their families and kin at marriage to join their husband’s family household. Diplomacy and strong social skills were necessary for forging solid relational ties with the non-kin members of her new household. Since men continued to dwell among their kin and existing social networks, less intimate disclosure and fewer one-on-one interactions were necessary, as relational ties would already be strong. Whether or not ancient social patterns determined our contemporary preferences, most men definitely prefer less self-disclosure and larger group settings than women. Most men don’t have that one “BFF” the way women do, either. The emotional energy required in maintaining a single monogamous relationship may leave men with any mojo left to maintain the same level of intimacy with a same-sex BFF.

Guys Enjoy Active Engagement rather than Dishing the Dirt

Another persistent gender variation in friendship patterns involves just how “friendship is done.” Men prefer “doing” activities with friends over just “being” with friends and women expect friendships to be more reciprocal than men do. Women prefer friends who can serve a variety of functions in their lives – whether they opt for just one good friend or a large group of friends, women prefer that each of them be one with whom they can confide, shop, dine, walk, etc. Men, however, create social networks that include what have been termed “activity friends,”  “convenience friends,” and “mentor friends.” These groups would consist of friends such as poker buddies, carpoolers, and the neighbors from whom they borrow snow blowers, respectively.

Whereas women’s friendship patterns may be attributed to genetic programming for survival amongst non-kin groups, men’s obstacles to closer friendships have traditionally been attributed to three factors:

  1. Competition between men may keep intimate friendships from forming and this may also be a genetically programmed response. In fear of scarce resources, including food, shelter, potential mates, and safety, men may perceive close friendships as threats to their control of resources.
  2. Traditional stereotypes support the image of males as the strong, silent, independent gender that does not need to rely on others for survival or success.
  3. Especially for heterosexual men, there can be a pervasive fear of either being perceived as gay or opening up to feelings of attraction to another man – and this limits men’s interest in intimate friendships. However, recent shifts in our culture have allowed – or encouraged – a collection of “men’s movements” to organize and become visible. Many of these groups strongly promote the involvement of men more fully in intimate relationships with their partners, their male friends, and their communities. Perhaps this century will see the men leave their “den” or “man cave,” and more fully and authentically develop friendships with increased depth and openness.

Gender Doesn’t Matter when it Comes to Social Support Needs

Regardless of how a friendship plays out, whether it is deepened through mutual self-disclosure of thoughts, feelings, and core identity, or through companionship and engagement in shared activities, friendships protect us from loneliness, isolation, and compromised physical and mental health. Although women seek kindness and emotional support from their friends more so than men, men do value their friends and they also reap the benefits of stress reduction and decreased susceptibility to prolonged depression from their own style of friendship. While women tend to seek out a shoulder to cry on when things get tough, men rely on the “buddy system” and active engagement to help them de-stress.

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