Why the very concept of male-female friendship makes people uncomfortable.

Friendships between men and women.
Oct. 1 2010 7:16 AM

Profane Friendship

Why the very concept of male-female friendship makes people uncomfortable.

(Continued from Page 1)

In practice, moreover, cross-sex friendships challenge the very concept of what it means to be an ordinary guy. Academic research confirms the trope that when women get together, they spend their time communicating thoughts and feelings. Men are more likely to discuss neutral subjects such as sports, or engage in some activity. Summarizing the difference, the psychologist Paul H. Wright has said that women's friendships are "face-to-face" while men's friendships are "side-by-side."   But when men and women start hanging around each other platonically, they meet somewhere in the middle in terms of emotional exchange. Research shows that cross-sex friendships are more emotive than male-male relationships and less emotive than female-female ones. In my own survey of nearly 600 Slate readers, I heard from men who said that what they like about their cross-sex friendships is the ability to share without fear of judgment, and from women who said they valued the opportunity to watch sports, for example, without having to pick apart their feelings.

It's possible that those who choose to enter into cross-sex friendships are less gendered to begin with—so it's not that the relationship encourages less stereotypical, less differentiated behavior, but is a result of it. Call it the Louisa May Alcott take—in the 1868-69 novel Little Women, Jo and Laurie have a platonic friendship, of sorts (Laurie proposes marriage but Jo rejects him). It's clear that they get along in large part because Jo isn't feminine—she's outspoken and rowdy—and because Laurie, in turn, isn't masculine: He's perceived as unmanly by his grandfather, not tough enough for the business world.

I know that, in my cross-sex friendships, the traits that supposedly make men and women so separate (excluding physical differences) are hardly in evidence. My friend Jeff  preferred art class to gym class (he hyperventilated when he had to run a quarter mile our freshman year), wrote poetry about the girls he liked, and would tidy his room, including the closets, before they came over. He cries when he watches E.T.—or at least he did when we saw the 2002 rerelease in theaters. As for me: I don't watch sports; I have poor hand-eye coordination; I don't play video games. But I don't like to shop, and I confess I'm not entirely sure how to apply eyeliner. E.T. has never made me cry.

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Did Jeff and I become friends because we don't fit gender typecasts to an unusual degree (the Alcott take), or did our friendship make us more androgynous? The answer probably comprises a bit of the former and a bit of the latter, but either way, our friendship led me, at least, to dismiss the whole Mars-Venus thing. As a greater percentage of men and women experience cross-sex friendships, it stands to reason that more people will come around to this point of view and that the more extreme versions of the gender-divide argument will fall out of favor.

Click to go to an article on the origins of the term "platonic friendship."

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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