Men and Friendship


This is a followup to my earlier post on friendship.  When I was writing the first one, I came across several articles that talked about men and friendship. I’m sure someone can write the women and friendship side too, but I will limit myself to my gender.

One article says that “Men are hurting, and, according to many researchers, masculinity is what is hurting them and making it hard for them to maintain friendships.” A study on the harm done by toxic masculinity points to this view.

Though I think it is less true today than it was 50 or more years ago, society still tends to signal to males that they should be stoic, not showing their feelings and still encourages physicality and aggressiveness.

A TEDMED talk by Niobe Way, author of Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection says that the idea that “boys will be boys” is a harmful myth. It’s a phrase that’s often used to describe the mischievous, competitive, or aggressive behavior of some boys and men. But it helps to perpetuate a stereotype and the dismissal of these behaviors.

We live in a time when there are increasing rates of suicide and violence among boys and young men. The American Psychological Association did a study about harmful masculinity. 

A less academic article in Harper’s Bazaar talks about the ways that straight men lean on women (especially wives and girlfriends) to do their emotional labor. And this article in GQ looks at another view of that writing about men whose friends are mostly women.

Even when men have close male friends, the ideas of intimacy and vulnerability in a friendship may not be even addressed. A part of this is clearly based on a desire to be seen as masculine and not wanting to cross over into femininity. And another part, I believe, is a hesitancy to ask personal questions and dig below the surface topics of a friendship. In that way, friendships remain acquaintances.

The research shows that it is very important for children (especially boys) to have enriching friendships with adults who are able to express emotions. This means beyond the relationships of parents and close relatives.

Observations such as the fact that researchers find that men don’t try very hard to maintain friendships once they’re married. Their new mal friendships often come from the workplace and remain at the workplace and maintain a “business-like” demeanor.

It’s confusing. We still use the expression “man up” (even at times directed at a woman) to mean follow those male stereotypes. And yet much research unsurprisingly finds that boys and men are nor really any different from any humans. They are empathic and yearn for close friendships more than anything else.


Making, Keeping and Losing Friends

friends girls

This past week, I met for drinks with a friend from elementary school. We were good friends when we were in school together, but he moved when we were 10 years old and we lost touch. Through the connections of the Web (I still think of that www as meaning something different from the Internet), we reconnected. Our meeting was fun and nostalgic. I’m sure there were synapses firing in our brains that night that had not made those connections for a long time. That’s because we had not seen each other for 56 years.

The word “friend” has undergone some redefining in the age of social media. Even though I may have hundreds of Facebook friends, I know that very few of them are what I consider to be friends.

It is totally human to want connections and friendship with people. Setting social media aside, making and keeping friends takes some work.

A segment on NPR’s  Life Kit (a collection of podcasts on making life better) about friends has the interesting three-part title of Accept The Awkwardness: How To Make Friends (And Keep Them).

There is the awkwardness of making a new friend sometimes and accepting that awkwardness can be a problem for someone that limits their opportunities for new friendships. Then there is the actual starting of friendship, and then there is the cultivation of a friendship so that it lasts.

I have many people who I would have classified as friends from school (kindergarten through college) and from my workplaces who I never saw outside of that setting and who I rarely or never see since that setting ended. Are they still friends? I don’t think so.

Facebook once promoted using friend lists and I set up about a dozen using school, work, former students, poetry people, etc. They seem to have fallen from favor and I’m not even sure where to find them in the app anymore.  One default category there was “acquaintance” which I think is a good word to describe a person you know slightly, but who is not a friend.

The NPR podcast had several suggestions. One is “Accept the awkwardness and assume that other people need new friends, too.”  That uncomfortable moment of introducing yourself,  in person or via an email or text or whatever, is a time when you feel somewhat exposed. There is the possibility of rejection, which no time wants.

Another suggestion is the optimistic “Remember that people will like you more than you think they will.” I’m not sure even this late in life that I have arrived at that conclusion about myself.  NPR talked to a researcher who studies the “liking gap,” which says that the little voice in your head telling you that somebody didn’t like you very much is wrong, so don’t listen to it.

They also say that you should “invest in activities that you love” because doing things you’re passionate about will naturally draw people to you, and you’ll naturally connect with other people who share something already.

I mentioned the possibility of rejection earlier and that for me was a major problem for me when it came to dating. I separate making new friends to making connections that I feel would be romantic. But their advice is “to treat friendship as seriously as you would dating.” I don’t think I agree, but since I have been out of the dating game for decades, I can’t really evaluate the 2019 situation.

To maintain a friendship you really do need to be present. You have to turn off the many distractions and really listen and notice things about your friend. I have become a friendship notetaker using my phones’ notes and contacts apps to remember birthdays, anniversaries, children, relatives, jobs other life information to make connections with friends’ lives.

ADDITIONAL: Gillian Sandstrom’s research on the liking gap found that after strangers have conversations, they are liked more than they know. She gives detailed instructions for how to in her scavenger hunt instructions – you can even take part in her research.

Why Making New Friends Gets More Difficult

add friend button

I read this post on Why Making New Friends Gets More Difficult as You Grow Older and had to stop and consider whether I felt it was true for myself.

Some of the reasons given are pretty depressing.

“As you grow more mature, your morals and standards start to change and solidify. As a young adult, you may have been more flexible and open-minded about some things, but time has worn grooves into your soul.”  Grooves in my soul sounds really bad. Am I less flexible in my views than when I was 22?

I believe my friend-making changed when I stopped being a student and started being an employee. Though I met many more people in my working years than in my student years, the vast majority (probably 90%) of them are better described as acquaintances than friends.

Another article states that “Marriage changes a lot, but kids change everything,” and I would agree with that when it comes to making new friends. Like my working life, getting married and having kids opened up many new vectors to meeting people. Some of them have remained true friends. Most have dropped down on the friend scale. Some people I socialized with a lot when our kids shared mutual activities (school and sports especially), have disappeared from my life now that my children are adults away on their own. Were they really ever friends?  Yes, they were. But friendships, like all relationships, change, evolve, devolve.

The author of that first article says that “Social media is ruining making friends.” I think social media has tried to redefine “friend” (as used on Facebook) to mean someone who we have a very thin virtual relationship with. I have “Facebook friends” that I have never met, never will meet and that I only connect with through an interest. Might we be real life friends if we met in person? Possibly.

A good example is the list of people on Facebook that are listed as my friends because of poetry. A very few of them are people know and see and talk with about poetry (and other topics) regularly. There is a larger group within that list of poets that I have met or at least heard read their poetry in person. I doubt that many of them would recognize me or know my name if we were in a social situation. And there are an even larger group of poetry people who I have never met and will likely never meet in real life. Friends? No.

I prefer when social networks use terms like “follow.” I follow some celebrities on Instagram because I like seeing their images, but we have no friendship at all – and that is fine.

The author of that article is 43, so I have a few decades on her, but I certainly hope this is not true of me.

“Maybe, as we grow older, we just get rusty at making new friends. Think about it. Many of us get married and have children, and for decades of our lives, we see our children as our best friends. No, we don’t tell them this, but we hold this feeling in our hearts, now don’t we… Well, when our children leave the nest, we are left with our mate, or we are left alone. When this happens, we have forgotten how to socialize correctly.”

I haven’t sat down to make a list of who I would consider actual friends versus acquaintances or any other label. It would probably be somewhat painful. I do know that my closest friends tend to be ones I have known for the most years and with whom I still have face-to-face contact, even if that part only happens once a year. I can’t think of any “virtual friend” that would make the Friend list. And that has less to do with me getting older than it has to do with the world getting older.

The Calculus of Friendship

“Yet in another way, calculus is fundamentally naive, almost childish in its optimism. Experience teaches us that change can be sudden, discontinuous, and wrenching. Calculus draws its power by refusing to see that. It insists on a world without accidents, where one thing leads logically to another. Give me the initial conditions and the law of motion, and with calculus I can predict the future — or better yet, reconstruct the past. I wish I could do that now.”

The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life while Corresponding about Math by Steven Strogatz

I heard Steven Strogatz interviewed about his book. Though the book’s title got my attention, the basics of the story got me to listen and then pick up the book. It’s about a mentorship and friendship between Strogatz and his high-school math teacher over 30 years.

They share math – problems in calculus and  chaos theory – and then life events. It moves through their changing roles his from student to professor, and Mr. Joffray from teacher into retirement.

Joffray goes from the top of his form as a teacher to retirement. He competes in high level whitewater kayaking. He loses a son.

Steven goes from high school math whiz to Professor Strogatz. He loses a parent. He enters a doomed marriage.

After many years of teaching and quite a number of students whom I have kept in touch with, I don’t have a story like this one to tell.

The two of them take a long time to move from being connected by calculus, to that time when the connection moves beyond math.

The title, The Calculus of Friendship, isn’t just a clever twist. Calculus explores change and friendships are all about that too.  Calculus was  Isaac Newton’s way of modeling change mathematically.

Strogatz is professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University and got his Ph.D. from Harvard University. His specialty is nonlinear systems. Don’t ask me to explain but let’s say that can take you from synchronized fireflies to small-world networks.

Their letter writing starts when Steven is in his freshman year in college. Eventually, the letters begin to explore the more philosophical similarities between calculus and human relationships.

Calculus (from the Latin, calculus, meaning a small stone used for counting) is the study of change, in the same way that geometry is the study of shape and algebra is the study of operations and their application to solving equations.

Though I am fascinated by math, I was never good at it. It wasn’t mathphobia. I just didn’t have it in me. The book gets into calculus, differential equations, and chaos theory and I get a bit lost. I’m back in a high school classroom. But Strogatz does a pretty good job in using metaphors, images, and stories to make some of the math approach that beauty that mathematicians always talk about finding in things like solutions.

Of course, I’m not going to rush out to read his Nonlinear Dynamics And Chaos: With Applications To Physics, Biology, Chemistry, And Engineering (Studies in nonlinearity) (“An introductory text in nonlinear dynamics and chaos, emphasizing applications in several areas of science, which include vibrations, biological rhythms, insect outbreaks, and genetic control systems.”)

But from the interview I heard, I am tempted to find a copy of his Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life in a library and give it a shot.

The mystery of the synchrony of fireflies flashing in sync by the thousands makes me wonder.

I have written here already about our own body clocks synchronizing with night and day and even with one another.

How freaky is it that Christiaan Huygens discovered in 1665 that when he observed two pendulum clocks they would swing in unison when they were within a certain distance of each other.

Spontaneous synchrony makes a footbridge in London undulate erratically as people on it unconsciously adjust their walking pace to the bridge’s swaying.

Is there chaos systems in playing “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” or in our behavior involving fads or mobs? Is there a “herd mentality” amongst stock traders? What about the way we drive in traffic?

James Glieck’s Chaos: Making a New Science and Barabasi’s Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means were books that had a crossover audience from academics to a general audience too.

I don’t think I’ll head back into a math class though (even if there are free courses from MIT online).

If all that math still scares you, you could go down a novel path with Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor. The novel is narrated by the Housekeeper and the characters are known only as the Professor and Root. Root, nicknamed by the Professor because the shape of his hair and head remind the Professor of the square root symbol, is Housekeeper’s 10-year-old son.

The math Professor was seriously injured in a car accident and has short-term memory that only lasts for 80 minutes. He can remember his math and the baseball he loves, but forgets the Housekeeper all the time.

The Professor and Root connect through the baseball more than through math and are able to have a friendship in those short periods of memory.

And there is some education process between the housekeeper (who didn’t finish high school) and the professor. I like how the author uses mathematical theories to make everyday connections in their chaotic world.

We all understand chaos theory these days.