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Sociological Thoughts

Driving to Montana and the gender of friendships

By July 4, 20132 Comments

The hubs and I were having a conversation at the local bar recently (this happens from time to time). In describing the strength of his friendship with someone, he said, “If they called me and said they’re in Montana, can I come get them with $400, I’d do it.” This, he explained, was how he and his friends measured the depth of their friendships. For whom would you drop everything and drive to Montana?

This assumes, of course, that you don’t already live in Montana and that you live far away from Montana. And that Montana is somewhere on the list of places you’d be less enthusiastic about visiting. Feel free to substitute whatever particular place you really would rather not go. Indiana, maybe.

MontanaIt’s an interesting kind of game to play with your own list of friends. Who would you drive to Montana for? And then who would drive to Montana for you? Who would you pick up the phone and call? It’s not the first time my husband has expressed such a thought. Driving home from vacation once, he suddenly announced that if our car broke down far from home, he knew he could call Nick, and Nick would come. It was clearly a meaningful kind of realization for him.

As we sat at the bar assembling our lists, it occurred to me that this is not how I usually think about my friendships. If you’d asked me before to rank the intimacy of my friendships, I probably would have done so by who I would choose to tell certain things to. The people whom I would tell the ugliest, scariest things are my closest friends; they are the people I can trust not to hate me. The people I can trust to keep my secrets.

And just like that, we embodied much of what you read about gender differences in friendship. Men’s friendships are about what you do, and women’s friendships are about what you say. Women’s friendships are face-to-face; literally sitting across from each other engaging in intimate conversation. Men’s friendships are side-by-side; fishing or sitting on the couch watching football.

As with almost any gender difference, there’s a great deal of research on how women and men have different kinds of friendships. There’s less research about how they’re not really very different at all. Don’t conclude that means that the differences win this argument; there’s less research about gender similarities in general because it’s just not as sexy. When’s the last time you read a headline that said, “Women and men really just the same.” No one wants to read that.

The research on gender similarities in friendships is pretty interesting, though. It reveals that women and men very much believe they have different kinds of friendships. They will tell you their friendships as women are different. If you ask them to describe how, they will conform to all the stereotypes exactly. That women sit around and talk while men do things.

But when you ask them to describe what they actually do with specific friends, the differences argument falls apart. Women do things together–they shop, they go on walks, they go to the gym together. And men talk–often about fairly intimate things. Some women hate the idea of disclosing intimate details of their lives. Some men would rather just sit and talk.

Before I met my husband, I’d never played the Montana game, but I had thought about who would be there if I got sick or injured. What if I broke my leg and couldn’t get off the couch for weeks at a time? Who would be there for me? Who would do the things that needed to be done? It’s not as exciting as Montana, but it’s still about doing. For most of us, a good friendship is some combination of doing and talking. Especially, one would hope, while sitting at the bar.


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