Grab your nearest bro and hit the basketball court, paint a barn or whittle some wood: It’s the only way to save your friendships with other men, according to new research that has found that men maintain friendships through activities, not via the sharing of feelings and experiences—or, perhaps most importantly, words on the phone.
A new study from Oxford University psychology professor Robin Dunbar found that while women can maintain friendships even across distances by simply talking on the phone, men have to meet up in person to keep the friendship dream alive, The Guardian reported. His research asked 30 students in high school to list all their dearest friends and rank how close they were. Then, he followed up with them nine and 18 months after graduation to see how close they remained.
Women in the study were able to keep friendships alive by simply talking on the phone, even if they were far apart. For men, facetime was key. “What held up their friendships was doing stuff together,” Dunbar told The Guardian. “Going to a football match, going to the pub for a drink, playing five-a-side. They had to make the effort. It was a very striking sex difference.”
And when the friendships didn’t work out, the consequences differed by gender, do. The women in the study had “much more intense close friendships” that could end “catastrophically,” while men’s friendships were much more casual, and it was no big deal if they drifted apart. “[Men] tend to have a group of four guys that they do stuff with,” Dunbar told journalists last Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “With guys it is out of sight, out of mind. They just find four more guys to go drinking with.”
While this is a very small sample size — and a fairly reductive take on male friendship — it’s not the first study to find something similar. “Men’s friendships are more often based on mutual activities like sports and work rather than what’s happening to them psychologically,” psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds told The New York Times last year about her research on male friendships. “Women are taught to draw one another out; men are not.”
This is perhaps why men have an easier time being close with their wives or girlfriends or other women; women will do the work of staying intimate. Anecdotally, MEL has talked to men who admit to having their closest emotional connections with women, and say they struggle to keep friendships going after work and family life take over because. In essence, they’ve put all their emotional eggs into a lady basket. “Male friendships tend to be more superficial; it’s about what you share in common at the time,” Brian, a 30-year-old from Sacramento, told us.
Not helping any of this are our cultural perceptions of bromance, which is occasional portrayed as something “real” men aren’t afraid to embrace, but more often as kinda gay. We also tend to mock men for seeking out friendships with other men, or having too many new friends, or even finding a new male friend.
Add to all this the fact that men hate talking on the phone and it’s easy to see why casual male friendships that can easily fall by the wayside. Too often, they only hinge on the fact that one time you both happened to need to change out your brake pads together. But consider the alternative: If you bothered to call a guy, or tell him anything too personal, someone might think you actually were into that dude.
If all this seems bleakly functional rather than actually fulfilling, consider that other research suggests that while male friendships don’t look like female friendships, it does not follow that they must be less rewarding.
“It is true that men do not easily show intimacies and revelations of strong emotional responses,” says New York psychiatrist Roger Gould told The Atlantic in a piece about the value of male friendships. “It does not mean the relationships are not filled with trust, deep regard and respect, fun, and sometimes crisis support. Men relate to other men quite well, just not the same as women relate to other women.”