Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Making Friends of the Opposite Sex

In yesterday's comments, Jennifer brought up an embarrassment many Singles will know well. It is the problem of saying a friendly word to a member of the opposite sex and getting a cold look of suspicion and fear in return.

I used to think that was just a girl's problem, but I've received enough sorrowful email on the same topic from young men to realize that this affects them just as much, if not more. One young man complained to me that when he tried to talk to Catholic girls at Catholic events, they stared at him wide-eyed, as if he were a potential murderer. Well, we're all potential murderers, but I know what he meant, because I spent my undergraduate days looking at guys who came up to talk to me as if they were potential murderers.

So it may come as a comfort to Singles on both the Joseph and Mary sides of the aisle to know that this is not a problem confined only to their group. But what to do?

First of all, we have to be honest. If you go up to a member of the opposite sex, thinking "Oooh, what a cute guy/girl", don't be surprised and shocked if they can read the lovelight in your eyes. But if you make a conversational aside to the random guy/girl beside you at the tea table after Mass and they interrupt you with "I'm seeing someone", just say, "How nice for you," and turn your back. They, not you, have been abominably rude.

Second of all, there are rude people in the world. There are people with Serious Issues. There has also been a general breakdown in manners and a growing tendency to confuse honesty with rudeness. But enough about Boston. What I'm trying to get across is that sometimes your well-meaning conversational gambit is going to be rudely rejected, and your response is to turn the other cheek and your entire back. There's no point trying to make friends with rude people with Serious Issues.

I remember talking to a professor at a garden party in Boston. It was my first school function in Boston, and I was very nervous. Having been introduced to a celebrated professor, I began to talk to him. Suddenly he lunged past me to grab the arm of a very pretty student two or so years ahead of me, and began to talk to her with great animation. This professor was a priest, and all I think about him now is, "I was a stranger and you made me feel like garbage." I've never tried to speak to him again. And I seem to have forgotten his name. He's a syncretist of some kind... Gracious, I just cannot remember his name for the moment.

Third of all, why should you care if a random guy or girl becomes your friend or not? You don't even know them, so if they are rude to you, they have given you helpful data: they are not friendship material, at least not right now. On to the next person.

Fourth, why do you need friends of the opposite sex? How many friends do you need? The ancients thought true friendship was rare. Aristotle thought it could only take place between equals which, for Aristotle, meant that men could never be friends with women. The Romans, however, did believe that a man's best friend could indeed be his wife, so thank you, Romans.

Americans and Canadians seem to feel that you can be friends with absolutely everybody, which is what Facebook is about. Some Europeans (like Germans) find this shocking and shallow. They have a few bosom pals, and then respectful acquaintances. This dignified reality is supported by the, for example, German custom of addressing one's neighbours by their title and surname. "Gruess Gott, Herr Schmidt." "'Tag, Frau Mueller." Never mind that they may have lived next door to each other for thirty years.

I believe that men long for women friends because if they don't have a woman at their table and in their bed, most of them feel horribly lonely and incomplete. Women are very good at saying soothing things and listening and all those other skills we absorb from absolute babyhood. But I don't quite understand why women long for lots of male friends, unless it is because they don't get along with other women. Shiraz and I had a good conversation the other days as to who were the worse bullies, twelve year old boys or teenage girls. Shiraz had a lot of convincing proof that whatever bullying boys could do, girls could do better. But you know me. I think men are the caffeine in the cappuccino of life, but they just can't provide me with the Girl Chat I need to stay cheerful in this valley of tears.

On the one hand, longing for created stuff (like friends) is not really in keeping with the Christian faith. We're supposed to long for God and thank Him for whatever created gifts he sends our way. So we should be grateful for the friends we have, and not kill ourselves trying to get more. On the other hand, no man (or woman) is an island, and we have to take care of our emotional life. If we move to another city, and our friends are all elsewhere, we certainly feel a lack.

On Sunday, when I had collapsed from too much drink and too much sun onto a cushion as men about me drank even more and sang "Annie Laurie" around the piano, one of my husband's friends looked upon me with compassion.

"Aw, hen," he said. "Weel have tae find ye more wifies."



The Sojourner said...

But I don't quite understand why women long for lots of male friends, unless it is because they don't get along with other women.

I don't know about lots of male friends, but I think women should have a few. I find male friends useful insofar as most men can penetrate to the core of emotionally charged arguments with a few words that puts it all in perspective. I can't think of any good examples right now, but that's what I've found. They're fantastically practical, concrete little creatures, men are. I find myself continually amused and often amazed by the male perspective on life.

I say this, mind you, as someone who has one boyfriend and a handful of somewhat distant male friends, and then a handful of very close female friends and a score or two of more distant ones. So, it's not that I don't like women. I love women, women are awesome. Women don't flip out when I start blubbering. But men are delightful too.

theobromophile said...

Fourth, why do you need friends of the opposite sex? How many friends do you need?

Sometimes (or often, sadly) we move away from our friends or grow apart from them (marriage and babies, anyone?), and it's either make more friends or be lonely. I've been tremendously fortunate in that, at every major stage of my life, I've had a rock-solid, wonderful friendship with a woman.

As for man friends: it's lovely to go running with friends, to play basketball or go kayaking not by oneself (which takes the fun out of it), and to talk cars with someone.

Also, I've noticed that men who have women friends (tough, strong, loving women friends) tend to be better boyfriends (and, presumably, husbands, although I have no first-hand information about this).

Finally, when my male friends date (or, often, marry) wonderful women and treat them well, it reinforces an otherwise theoretical belief in how a relationship should be. I recall some good-natured grumbling from a man I was then dating about one of my best friends, who is male; he said that "the most considerate person on the planet" was giving me actual standards for male behaviour.

Of course, those of us who aren't Women's Women have a problem that we've already mentioned: men see us as pals, not as girls - even the men who aren't part of our group of friends!

There has also been a general breakdown in manners and a growing tendency to confuse honesty with rudeness. But enough about Boston.

New Englanders are often a reserved, chilly bunch - I can see how, without the warmth and openness with which to temper blunt statements, it could really rub people the wrong way. We're also more sarcastic - or ironic, if you want to be technical - in our humour than people in other parts of America, which makes for some interesting cultural interactions.

Sarah said...

Well, yes, girls are great for friendship during emotional turmoil, a good cry, and going shopping and talking about, well, girl things... A week or two ago, my friend Brandi had a party at her house and invited several people we work with, men included. But as it turned out, the only people able to make it were some of the women in our office. And it was a *great* time. We had some margaritas,
talked about men, played poker and I was glad it turned into a kind of lady's night thing.

But on the day to day, boy friends are just fun to be around. They are cheerful and phlegmatic and make things interesting. Eventually talking about clothes and purses and our mothers gets old and you want to talk about something else. I recently went on a ten hour interstate drive with two brothers and they provided me with the most pleasant, insightful, intelligent and understanding conversation I've had in a while.

It's a matter of who the person is. Not all boys are as intelligent and sweet as the ones I know. And not all girls are as kind and non-catty as the ones I know. I have amazing girlfriends *now* but in the past, girls were the source of a lot of pain and drama. Either sex can produce a poor friend.

Lynea said...

That's a horrible story, that someone would turn around and say, "I'm seeing someone" to someone else (who happens to be from the opposite sex) just being nice. It sounds sort of familiar, as if perhaps that happened to me many years ago.

What you write is so very "spot on"! Women who desire to have a slew of male friends are doing it out of vanity. There's no need for it. The older I get, the more I can see that men really do want more than friendship. It's also not enough for a woman to say to man, "I like you as a friend only," and then continue to spend time with him frequently, because then the guy will just keep hoping.
Maybe it's true, too, for women, but I wouldn't hang out with someone who I was interested in but wasn't interested in me. That seems painful! (Men must be gluttons for punishment.)

I also don't think the opposite sex is a good replacement for friends of the same sex. I used to think that when I didn't know better, but they are just wired differently.

Jennifer said...

"There has also been a general breakdown in manners and a growing tendency to confuse honesty with rudeness. But enough about Boston."

HA!!! I have been laughing about this since I read it on the subway this morning! Having lived - up until the beginning of April - in Boston for 12 steenkin' years, I second that. Love my friends from Boston, but good grief it was hard to make friends there.

"Fourth, why do you need friends of the opposite sex? How many friends do you need? "

To the first question: I'm generalizing, of course, but because friends of the opposite sex meet different needs than friends of the same sex. And not just for a set list of allegedly obvious reasons, but also for reasons that, depending on the individual contexts involved, would probably make a great deal more sense if you knew each person's individual contexts. We are not all the same - not just because because we came into this world as individuals, but also because the individual contexts of each life, after birth, vary so much from one person to the next.

To the second question: we need as many as we need. Bear in mind, also, that we are now a more transitory society. 100 years ago, you could become friends with the 5 women that lived closest to you, and stay friends for the next 65 years. I don't know many people who stay that rooted in their hometowns anymore. Many of us have to transfer to other cities/states/countries in order to keep their job, move up in their job, or find a new job when they've lost the one they have. And for all that it's lovely to have friends far away, and to keep up with what they're doing, most people do need more than that, need physically present friends, and find themselves in a position of building friendships all over again. Again with the individuality: I know people who need just 2-3 bosom friends and they're all set. I know some who need three times that many or more. We're not all the same.

"I believe that men long for women friends because if they don't have a woman at their table and in their bed, most of them feel horribly lonely and incomplete. Women are very good at saying soothing things and listening and all those other skills we absorb from absolute babyhood. But I don't quite understand why women long for lots of male friends, unless it is because they don't get along with other women."

I would gently suggest you go back, reread this, and rethink. It seems a bit condescending to both sexes. On the one hand, you appear to be saying that men only need women friends because they need someone to there-there them. And that women don't actually *need* male friends at all, unless they are somehow deficient in the art of making friends with women. I think you are terribly wrong on this point. I have read your blog(s) for the last few years, and one thing I have picked up is that you very much enjoy your nights out with the girls and seem to love spending any amount of time with not just one but several of your girlfriends on as frequent a basis as you can manage. Dare I suggest that a) you may be blinded on this point by your own *preferences* in the matter, and b) that we are not all cut from this same cloth? It is one thing to puzzle that the architecture of another's social circle is somewhat different from one's own. It is another thing entirely to be dismissive of that difference because it doesn't line up with the way you yourself prefer things to be.

Alisha said...

I don't know that I long for lots of male friends, that is, that I seek them out in great numbers...but mainly, I like them because they don't get annoyed about petty things, they tend to communicate more directly than women, and they make me laugh and these are all things I value and have not found as much in my female friends.
I think it just depends on experience as well. The people who have best understood my heart and inner life have been men so maybe that's why I gravitate towards them more. Also, I grew up without sisters, so all primary social interaction was done with boys.

Seraphic said...

Rethink, my aunt Fanny. I am a woman's woman, and the fastest way to annoy me is to say "I prefer the company of men" as if women never talk about anything except boys and clothes.

In all societies at all times, except our own, the majority of women socialized with other women, and kept tabs on those women who seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time with men-not-their-relations. Of course, that was sometimes very catty. However, it did and does serve as a corrective to the idea that what men do and think (to say nothing of their company) is SO SUPERIOR to what women do and think.

I enjoy the company of a few men very much. But I think woman can make themselves miserable running around after men for any reason, whether they want them as pals, boyfriends, husbands, substitute fathers or whatever.

Germaine Greer in "The Whole Woman" is particularly poignant about women's longing for male attention. In her view, women are at a great disadvantage when they want to be around men more than men want to be around them. Women have been battering down the doors of men's clubs, for example, whereas men are not interested in spending simply all of their leisure time with women.

I believe in a healthy, periodic separation of the sexes.

aussie girl in australia said...


I grew up with only sisters and yet I am in the same boat as you. Some of the people who have been (and remain) my closest friends are men.
The fact is that many, many women are catty. Not all, but many.
I find men more loyal generally. I have been burned by many more female friends than male.
For instance, a woman who called herself my best friend, been friends with for 17 years, decides to uninvite me from her wedding and make her bridesmaid call and tell me.

Seraphic said...

Good heavens! Brides do some zany things, and go almost insane in the weeks leading up to their wedding, but that takes the cake (so to speak). Uninviting is terribly, terribly rude. What on earth was her excuse, Aussie Girl?

healthily sanguine said...

Seraphic is right, girl friends are way better than guy friends for everyday purposes. :)

Jennifer said...

I am not at all suggesting that women only talk of boys and clothes, or that men are somehow superior with regards to thinking or conversing.

But I am, again, saying that there are reasons why one may find oneself with male friends, or even a higher percentage of male friends, and that those reasons are varied, and many are perfectly valid. And I am saying that these reasons may be easy to dismiss or to pooh-pooh if you are happily surrounded by women friends. Some of the other commenters have mentioned some of those reasons.

Personally, I don't care if my friends are male or female, and I don't care in what proportion. What I care greatly about is whether I can trust them, whether we have enough in common to maintain a friendship, and whether or not they are good people. Do I enjoy the company of a man who wants to discuss philosophy or architecture over a woman obsessed with shoes and scrapbooking? Yes. ABSOLUTELY. But do I also enjoy the company of a woman who wants to discuss philosophy or architecture over a man obsessed with sports and World of Warcraft? Yes. ABSOLUTELY. The X or Y chromosome doesn't matter so much to me. WHO (rather than what) the person is, matters a great deal more to me.

If I lived in a culture where women only socialize with women (or if with men, then only with relatives), I'm sure this would be different. But the hard, cold fact is that most of us have NOT grown up in that culture, nor have our mothers, nor, indeed, have many of our grandmothers. I don't see the U.S. or Canada, or the majority of Europe, or a parts of Asia heading back that direction anytime soon, either. So in the meantime, I make the friends that I can of who's available. Sometimes that means more male friends than female. Sometimes it means more female friends than male.

Jennifer said...

Also, Aussie Girl: I can put you touch with more than a few catty men, if you'd like to see what that looks like.

In my experience, men are no less capable of cattiness than are women. But it doesn't always look exactly the same, so it can be easier to miss. ;)

theobromophile said...

Rethink, my aunt Fanny. I am a woman's woman, and the fastest way to annoy me is to say "I prefer the company of men" as if women never talk about anything except boys and clothes.

I really understand the frustration of a Woman's Woman who looks at a Scarlett O'Hara type and knows that the lady in question just doesn't like other women, nor see their value as humans. (Also, this business of degrading other women just gives men a license to treat all of us the same way.) Believe it or not, us Man's Women feel the same way about those types.

The other thing is - this is not meant to be dismissive of the absolutely justified frustration of any Woman's Woman out there - is that Man's Women, a bit defensive themselves, tend to phrase things in the negative: "Men talk about X and women don't". The problem is that it sounds like other things - art, politics, law, recipes, grad school - that women talk about aren't important to us, even though they are. It's just that we enjoy doing our own car maintenance, as well as going to the museum and talking about grad school and politics.

Women have been battering down the doors of men's clubs, for example, whereas men are not interested in spending simply all of their leisure time with women.

But that is because men held a higher place in society. It's not about being around men; it's about being allowed to do the things that men do. As a former Ph.D. student, Seraphic, you know this, albeit maybe unconsciously. Women like Phyllis Schlafly, who I think is a mother of three or five, is proof of the fact that as much as we might hold motherhood in high regard, it can never be the only thing in our lives. The problem was that society used to tell women not that family was important or one's first priority, but it should be one's only priority and the only part of one's life.

I commend women for fighting that.

fifi said...

Speaking for myself, I suppose I am a Woman's Woman too. I also have lots of brothers, and great guy friends, but they fill very different roles than my girl friends.

I feel Aussie Girl's pain very much, because I was in rather a similar situation once. But on reflection, I realized that I should have seen it coming. The bride was a very dysfunctional person, and even though we had been friends for many years, we did not have common values, and I didn't completely trust her. Sad.

I think the cattiest people I ever knew have been women, but I would add a very strong caveat: they weren't Nice Catholic Girls, or well-catechized Christian young women. Don't get me wrong, my bosom (NCG) friends and I can still fight and disagree, but there is a lot more classiness, humility, generosity, and all-around sense-of-humor in our interactions. We realize we are all works in progress, and have common beliefs, and therefore, a point of reference for holding each other accountable and mending fences. It never gets ugly or spoils our friendship. The girls who have really singed me have been hurt, broken, bitter, and often mentally/rationally unstable. And they have also lacked church families and indeed, functional families of any kind.

Isn't this a rather important distinction to make? By the grace of God, both women and men who pursue virtue begin to grow away from their sinful default setting. Women get less catty/hyper-interested in everyone else's business, and men grow less selfish, and more interested in everyone else's needs. Whether you've been burned by a ghastly woman or a dreadful man, isn't it their level of conversion which is called into question?

A man or woman who truly seeks to be like Christ and to cultivate patience, humility, charity, and generosity, is a good and welcome friend anywhere.

fifi said...

A couple other points: I didn't want my last comment to get too long.

Up until a few months ago, I would have said "I'm content with my five bosom girlfriends. I don't need to make another friend in my life." But I've seen too many people I know who have had friends move, die, or simply drift away over the years. Making friends is an investment for the future, as well as a joy in the present. Friends are a gift from God: do you ever see a child refusing birthday or Christmas gifts because they've already had "too many?"

That said, I think a point of confusion is not how many friends we all have, but the degree of friendship. Our Auntie Seraphic is always encouraging us searching singles to go out and make lots of friends and have many interests. But it's not realistic, or frankly, healthy, to expect all of those people to become bosom friends or kindred spirits, or to be there for us night and day when our father dies, or that we will show them the same level of support.

There are many different kinds of friendship, and levels of intimacy in relationship. I think unfortunately many people struggle with finding those boundaries, myself, in the past, among them.

While we do live in a more transitory society than perhaps we did in the past, we also seem to live in a more age-segregated one. Don't forget: "Friends" don't have to be all your age either. You can be friends with your neighbor lady who is 68, and friends with your second cousins who are 18, and friends with the married mother of five in your parish.

I also highly commend women who fight for equality, etc. but I don't think that fighting to get into all-male clubs is the best example of that. I think it is a better example of what Seraphic is talking about, the fight by women to spend time with men, when men want to be by themselves. It's one thing to fight for access to an equally good education or an equally good and well-paying job. It's another thing to try to horn in on a purely social activity: really, that's rather gauche.

Alisha said...

Thanks for all your feedback - I think you are right on...especially about the fact that we are not all the same...biologically, one's sex can be much more complex than it appears. I was just reading a fascinating thread on Catholic Answers about how it is not always as simple as xx and xy http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=253426&page=3
...I wouldn't be surprised if minor genetic differences, along with the type of personality/disposition we have affected who we prefer to spend the majority of our social time with..