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Buddy SystemUnderstanding Male Friendships$

Geoffrey Greif

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195326420

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195326420.001.0001

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What Do Friendship and Friend Mean?

What Do Friendship and Friend Mean?

(p.45) 2 What Do Friendship and Friend Mean?
Buddy System

Geoffrey L. Greif

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the research on men's friendship, based on interviews with 386 men. How men describe friendship is first covered: being understood and having a friend who is loyal, dependable, and trustworthy are all important to men when they describe their friendships. Whether men believe they have enough friends — 40% are unsure or do not believe they do — is discussed.

Keywords:   men's friendship, friend, loyal

I am riding in the back of a taxi in Sydney, Australia, where I have traveled to learn more about men’s friendships. My cab driver is a recent Pakistani immigrant to Australia, a man probably in his mid 20s. We begin talking about why I have traveled so far. I ask if he has made friends in his new country. He has not, and he longs for them. He tells me, “A friend is the most important thing to have in the world. If you have a friend, you have everything.”

Friendship, like love, has always had important and universal meanings to people. But, like love, the definition varies from person to person, with no universally accepted notion. Ask 100 people what friendship is, and you will get almost as many unique responses. Over time, though, and like love, some similar themes emerge despite individual differences. Take the next three quotes. These were given by typical men who were interviewed for the study and were asked what friendship meant to them. Their quotes set the stage for the discussion that follows, as they show both the range and similarity of definitions.

  • “It’s a relationship between people that is amicable and helpful, and where there is good will. You count on your friends to be tough on you. Real friends tell you things that are difficult to hear.”

  • “You can’t really define it…. Some of these sound like clichés, but a friend is someone who is there for you when you have a need, somebody that isn’t judging you, someone who is going to be understanding, somebody who is going to support you even though they don’t agree with you all the time.”

  • “A true best friend is someone you can count on in all circumstances, under all conditions, and who you understand very well and share many common goals and interests.”

(p.46) Defining Friendship and Friends

To get a sense of how men thought about friendships, in our study, we asked a broad, two-part question: “What is friendship, and what does a friend mean to you?” Although no universal definition of “friend” exists,90 for the men in the study, and I believe for most men, friendships include the ability to communicate with and be understood by another person. Trustworthiness, loyalty, and dependability are also essential. Throughout the interviews, the men said similar things and used remarkably similar words: Sharing, honesty, and a level of mutual acceptance had to be present for a friendship to exist. Honesty can include being understood when honest and also trusting a friend with your honesty.

The men in the study gave the following responses to what friendship means:

  • Being understood (communicating, sharing, caring, not being judged, and includes having the friend give feedback), 57%

  • Trust and loyalty, 50%

  • Dependability (have someone to rely on, someone to count on), 42%

  • Doing things with/hanging out with, 24%

  • Commonality (are similar in important ways), 18%

  • Demonstrates friendship with concrete acts (helps move, loans money), 2%

The men highlighted in these pages, with a particular focus on 10 men who are followed throughout the next four chapters, give answers that often include more than one of these responses. I include at least one example under each of these responses to give the flavor of what we heard in the interviews. They also give examples of must, trust, just, and rust friends. Early in the interviews, it is clear that some men compartmentalize friends by topic or activity, and others separate them into levels that range from close to distant. They also talk about whether they have to be in constant contact with their friends.

Being Understood

Everybody wants to be understood and accepted by others. This is the cornerstone for men. Whether the men interviewed talked about this issue in terms of communication, giving feedback to someone, or having a friend to share with, being understood was essential for the majority of men. A few (p.47) men said a friend would listen and accept them whether they were right or wrong. A few mentioned that a friend is like a brother, or like family.

But the notions of unconditional acceptance and friendship varied. Some men described in macho terms that a friend would tell them when they were wrong and would “keep them in line.” These men felt that they were a little tougher if they had friends who would “tell them off” and who felt free to speak their minds. They were proud of appearing that they could go “toe to toe” in a friendship by openly speaking their minds. That was how they felt understood. In the case of Al, being understood included keeping confidences.

Al, a 45-year-old white nurse, has been married most of his adult life and is the father of a son. Interviewed over a cup of coffee at a diner, Al introduces very quickly the importance of being one’s own person in a friendship, a sentiment that is key to a friendship’s long-term health. In his description, he nails the concept of a must friend. “A friend is someone you can confide in, talk with if you need to talk with. Someone to joke around with, let your hair down with, you don’t have to worry about offending. But even there, you base it on personalities. I have some pretty religious friends who I do not tell off-color jokes to. Trust is a big thing—trust and confidentiality. I wouldn’t want them running right back to their significant other on some topics.”

Note how Ben, the next man, looks for good communication with his friends. Age 27 and white, Ben has been working with children and adolescents as a social worker for two years. He is also a married father and doesn’t think friends have to be in frequent contact to sustain their friendship. “I think a real (must) friendship is something where the relationship will endure anything—good times, bad times—pretty much unconditionally. And that’s what friendship is. I’m not sure if the criteria should be that you have to see each other that often. I have friends I haven’t seen for months, or as much as a year, and when we get together, it’s like we were never apart. So, enduring, unconditional—people who can be there for you at the same time they can give you both kinds of feedback—they can give you the positive, and they can tell you when you are ridiculous.”

In my dialogue with Hal, the final example here, the importance of being understood comes through loud and clear. Hal, 59, has a Ph.D. in chemistry and works at a large university where he conducts research and teaches. White and married for 23 years, he has two sons, ages 20 and 18. He has lived in the same university town for 17 years, after moving around from the West, the Midwest, and the East. His mother lives 100 miles (p.48) away and is blind, having suffered from macular degeneration for the past 40 years. His father, who was her primary caretaker, died of prostate cancer 10 years ago. Hal is an only child and believes he needs friends to a greater degree than he would if he had siblings. His parents only had one child, he told me, because that was all they could afford, given his father’s income from an electronics repair business. He is a thoughtful guy and paused for long periods of time during our conversation to consider the question that is posed. Our interview took place in his office.

“My perspective on friendship is based on my being an only child. I never had many people around, so people are a big deal for me. It doesn’t seem to be that way for others, but people are a big deal for me. When I look at my wife, who has a large family, following up on friendships does not seem as important for her, and she is a much more loving and giving person than I am. So, looking at the world as we do, one would say that she should be much more into people than me because I am into science and don’t cut a lot of people slack. But I am more into people. A (must) friend to me is someone you look up to as you would your family. Family is someone who is blood and responsibility, and someone can be a friend and enter into that sphere. That’s where I would put a friend, in the inner circle.

“They have to be truthful to a point—sometimes you have to handle truth and grace together as a juxtaposition. Sometimes you have to handle things with grace and sometimes you have to be the truth teller. So, someone who will hold me accountable but realize the times when I need to be handled with grace would be a good friend.”

His response pushed me to comment, “Your answer really speaks to the duality or the gray area that exists in friendships—I have heard from some men that they want someone to tell them the truth all the time, and from other men that they want someone to watch their back. Your statement about grace and truth spans that by saying that such actions are contextual. You are giving a more bifurcated view of how this works.” These themes return later in our conversation.

One interesting study finding comes from the older men interviewed. Whereas 57% of the entire group of 386 men talked about the importance of “being understood” when they described what a friend was, among the 73 men in the sample who answered this question who are age 50 or older, 68% included this in their description. Men increasingly recognize and want a friend as they age who they can communicate with and who is accepting. Also interesting is that, of the 10 openly gay men in the sample, nine also mention “being understood” as a key component of a friendship, (p.49) a higher percentage than in the sample overall. If gay men are more emotionally expressive (more apt to exchange fears and feelings, according to Peter Nardi), defining communicating as key to friendship is consistent with that belief.

Trust and Loyalty—“Having Your Back”

Trust was a key component of friendship, and it does not always mean the same thing to everyone. Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, describes trust as the cornerstone of social connections. If I do something for you, I must trust that, at some point, you will do something for me.91 Without trust, friendships do not work.

Echoed by other men, the notion of loyalty and protection is very important and harkens back to earliest humans. Tribes or clans survived in part through members relying on each other. If you cannot trust your friend to protect you, then who can you trust?

Loyalty has been identified by philosophers as a key element of friendship. For example, a philosopher, Sarah Stroud, on the ethics of friendships, wrote, “One particular aspect of that loyalty, it seems, is sticking up for your friend. If someone pokes fun at one of your friends … or says something false or misleading (and derogatory) about him, it seems to be your responsibility as a good friend not to join in the fun; not even simply to remain silent and withhold comment; but, on the contrary, to stick up for your friend.”92 This is “having your friend’s back” and vice versa. Stroud is saying that, even when the friend is not present, you will defend him.

Occasionally, the men in the survey said that trust meant lending money or providing a specific service. The men mentioned that a friend was someone who would give you a loan or come to your assistance at a moment’s notice (Although this was represented by the separate response of demonstrating friendship with concrete acts, it could be subsumed under trust and loyalty.)

Casey, 35, describes himself as single, and part Hispanic, part Korean. He is involved in construction and has an engineering background. For him, loyalty is the key to friendship. “A friend is somebody who is loyal and really warm. He shows his friendship to you, not only with words but con hechos [with acts]. If you are sad, sometimes a good friend can catch your energy and say, ‘Hey, you look sad. Can you tell me what’s going on?’ That is friendship to me. They show interest without making you feel bad. Some people are your friends because of the things you have, material (p.50) things, but, to me, a real friend is the one who gives you friendship without asking anything in exchange” (a good description of a must friend).

David is 24 years old, African-American, single, and, like Ben, also counsels children. His response reveals the enormous changes he has gone through in relation to trusting males. Early on, his gang involvement pushed loyalty without friendship, in part for safety reasons. He had to grow up to learn the true meaning of friends. “I think friendship extends to commitment, support, encouragement, and someone who will raise you up when you are down. It didn’t exist for me in the early part of my life. I had no idea. Honor and loyalty equal friendship now. When I was 13, I was running with the Crips, so it’s loyalty but not about friendship. It was ‘I die for you,’ and nothing in between and no emotions are discussed and no support except ‘let’s get this hustle.’ As I progressed through life, because of that initiation, the trust factor of other males was never there. It was like, ‘you’re trying to get my hustle’ or ‘you’re trying to get my girls or my money.’ So, I actually came to despise males and stayed away. I would smile at you or whatever, but if you messed with me, it’s on. And I look back at how sad that is now, but realize the functioning of that. So, the definition of friendship changed as I grew older.”

David talked also about the importance of age and maturity in understanding friendships and the continuing transformative role that frater nities can play for men. Fraternities for men who have been a part of a gang or even a sports team can help them continue to be together with other men in a socially acceptable way.

Finally, we meet Jack, who describes a friend and business partner who is loyal and also has his back. He could be a rust and a must friend given the longevity and closeness of their relationship. Jack, a white, 43-year-old married father of an eight-month-old named Roger, is in the most unusual situation of the featured men. He is a stay-at-home dad, and his wife is a surgeon at a major hospital in Chicago. They moved to Chicago from Baltimore one year ago because of the academic position she was offered. Female surgeons are as rare as stay-at-home dads.93 Jack works out of the home as a parts supplier for cars, a job he was able to travel with when they moved to Chicago. It is mostly phone sales, but he also does a few trade shows a year that take him around the world, without his wife or Roger. Jack offers an interesting perspective on his role and what it is like to maintain friendships from afar, struggle to make new friends in Chicago, and raise a young son. Our interview took place in a neighborhood bar.

Jack brought Roger along in a stroller and sat him on his lap during most of the interview. Roger is incredibly mellow and, aside from a little (p.51) fussiness, and one diaper change (the men’s room did not have changing facilities, which Jack pointed out to the bartender), was a welcome addition to the conversation.

I met Jack at a party the week before, at which he and I were talking about this book. So, when I asked Jack how he defined friendship, he had a ready answer. “Loyalty, someone you can count on, someone with the same interests as you. Someone who would have your back. I was in another city at a trade show last week with a co-worker and we were always watching each other’s back because the show was not in a safe part of town. So, friendship can mean literally and figuratively watching each other’s back. This was someone I grew up with, and we ended up working together. This is someone who is personal and business. We enjoy each other’s company in both realms. We were at each other’s weddings and at other important junctures in each other’s lives. Friendship is calling each other when the other is down. I’d call him, and he’d call me. Respect is also important. I need their respect and they need mine.”


Trying to parse out dependability—having someone to count on—from loyalty can be a wordsmith’s chase but the sense gained from the men was that dependability was different from loyalty. They wanted someone specifically who they could rely on to be there when needed. They did not talk about being understood as much as the belief that they could call someone up in the middle of the night, and that person would be there for them.

A brief response given by a 41-year-old white electrician, Arnold, epitomizes the responses related to dependability that we got from the less loquacious men. “You can count on them, on a moral basis, more than anything else. They are going to be there for you if you need them, and you do not have to jump through hoops.”

A more in-depth example is from one of the 10 men we are following, a response that could be grouped with these other responses. A few minutes into Felix’s answer, I hear the sense of dependability that he provides for his friends.

Felix, age 50, white, and gay, lives in a condominium in a New York low-rise that he helped designed when he was with an architectural firm and before starting his own firm. He is not in a committed relationship, having broken up two years ago with his long-time significant other, Bernard. When we began the interview in his home, Felix asked me how many gay (p.52) men had been interviewed for the book. Two percent had self-identified as gay, I said, but the number could be higher in case someone wished to conceal his sexual identity. That led me to cast the first question in light of his being gay, “What does a friendship mean to you, and do you think that being gay has a different meaning for you and your male friends?”

In his response, Felix turns away the question of being gay with a clarification about his self-definition before he speaks directly to friendship. “Maybe not for me—I consider myself more straight than gay. Gay is the fact that, as a sexual orientation, I prefer men. But I don’t think I fit the stereotype of gay men, and the stereotype of gay men is so unfair and there are so many who do not fit the stereotype, whatever it is. Friendship for me is loyalty, and that is the basis for my philosophy, whatever the situation is. The best sign of a (trust) friendship is when you are having a problem and people come through for you. But if people are not loyal to me, basically they do not exist. I am not a good poker player, and I show my emotions and am very forward. When I broke up with Bernard, with whom I am still very close, I went into a local café by myself for dinner, which I do fairly frequently. I value being alone, but I also value being with people. I am very reclusive and very social at the same time. I approached a table of three friends, and they knew I was alone and they didn’t ask me to sit with them. From that day on, I have never had anything to do with them.”

I asked if it was because they were aligning with Bernard after the breakup?

“No. In relation to friends, gay men are very cliquish. I am not cliquish, but I find the gay community more cliquish than any other community I knew growing up, and I have no use for that in any shape or form.”

I pointed out to Felix that he valued loyalty and asked if that includes having a friend support him, regardless of the situation. “When I think of loyalty, I think of a friend being there for me when the chips are down and when they are not down. I have friends from high school and college, and I put a lot of effort into friendships. I don’t chase people, but the mother of one of my friends from high school said to him a few years ago, ‘You’ll be getting a card from Felix until you are 100.’ That’s the kind of person I am, and that is how I operate. I recognize there are people who adore me and those who can’t stand me, and I am okay with that. I can be very warm and friendly with those I like, and I can be very aloof and removed from those I don’t like and I am not ashamed of that. So, there has to be loyalty for this to work.”

(p.53) The third example is of someone who also values being understood and demonstrating loyalty. His response includes the notion that he can go to his friends in a pinch, and their responses will be consistent.

Ed, age 55 and white, drives a taxi. Twice-divorced with two children, he has come to rely on his male friends a great deal but withholds his friendship until the situation is right. “I’m pretty selective. I have a hundred thousand acquaintances (just friends), but very few move to a (must) friend. You have to be understanding, have a good sense of humor, and you must be trustworthy. If I say something a good pal doesn’t like, I don’t expect him to fly off the handle and vice versa. If I need a favor, if they need a favor, we will be there for each other…. [A friend is] someone you can beat up and they can beat up on you, too, and still be friends.”

Do Things With: Hanging Out

Being able to spend time with a friend was very important, especially to younger men, for whom “hanging out” was frequently mentioned. One lengthy example is provided by Kenny (not one of the 10 featured men), who describes many aspects of friendship and also reflects on his youth, when he made friends through distinct activities.

A white 57-year-old married mental health practitioner with a master’s degree, Kenny categorizes friendships with great complexity: “Friendship is a relationship between two people who like each other, who trust each other, have a reasonable number of commonalities that bring or bind them together, and communicate often enough to support, build, and maintain that friendship. I expect a friend to be like a Boy Scout. A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

“From a friend I expect more than from other people. I expect him to be there through thick and thin. As a teenager, I had three close friends: Jeff was my ‘athletics friend’; we played tennis and basketball together; Rick was my ‘intellectual friend’; he taught me about astronomy, chess, and word games. Joel was my ‘social friend’; we went to the YMCA dances, double dated, cruised around, and talked about life, family, and feelings. But with each of us, there were other overlapping commonalities. We lived within reasonable proximity of each other, we were raised Jewish, we went to Hebrew School together, we were in the same Boy Scout troop, none of us smoked or did drugs, we were each from two-parent (p.54) families with siblings, and we went to high school together and were college-bound. It is important in friendships to have the same behavioral and communication styles.”

Jeff, Rick, and Joel were his must friends, and each was there for him in different spheres of his life. Men can have very close friends with whom they do different activities or who fulfill different needs. It is part of a maturation process, I believe, when a man realizes that no one person can be expected to meet all of his needs.

Commonality: One Basis for Building a Friendship

We can see the importance of commonalities in making friends in the concluding chapter, where suggestions for forming friendships are given. Without some sense of shared interests or history, it is difficult to establish or maintain a friendship over time. In Chapter 1, commonalities of race, religion, age, class, and sexual orientation are also discussed as a basis for friendship. One-fourth of the men mentioned being similar as a basis for friendship. Isuko provides an example of what the men were saying about the link between commonalities and friendship.

Isuko is a 37-year-old, Asian-American businessman who describes himself as gay. Perhaps more so than the others, he feels comfortable with opening up to other men. But a common link has to exist first. “What is a friendship? Someone you’ve somehow bonded with. You have something in common with them—it could be locality or interests. It can be spending time in each other’s homes. I could think about my childhood friend: that’s easy, because we have our childhood as our commonality. In friendships now, sharing humor is really important. Once we can make each other laugh, that would be it.94 Definitely, when you are going through hard times, they are there for you (the must friend). They are interested listeners. It is definitely sharing your dreams with someone, what you want to do in the future. What comes later is that you tell the person how important they are to you. It’s subtle. You could say it outright, or it’s watching over each other when you have too much to drink and you puke. It could be very emotional. You remember that bond, and you open up your soul.”

Although Isuko does not specifically refer to whether he means friendships with gay men, straight men, or both, it is interesting to look at the description he uses: “you tell the person how important they are to you.” (p.55) Isuko may be more comfortable opening up to men in general and uses terms that imply greater intimacy than the other men use.

From reading the responses, I picked up on three other trends relating to how men define friends and friendships. First, a few believed that friendships must evolve over many years and that they have only truly good friends from their childhood or high school years. These men appeared unwilling to explore the opportunity to make new friends.

Second, men with limited exposure to others are most apt to maintain friendships they had from their youth. Men who grew up and stayed in the same small town are likely to hold on to those experiences and value longterm high school friends as compared with men who have moved often and have been forced to make new friends.

Third, men whose high school years were filled with unhappy circumstances and friendships will most likely not hold on to those relationships. They will be interested in maintaining friends they made from a time when they were happier with themselves.

Finally, let me mention Larry, who is different from almost all the men interviewed in that he admits to being a loner. He is not one of the 10 featured men, but provides a valuable counterpoint. A 31-year-old African-American engineer who is single, his relationships epitomize the nature of the just friend, as he has no close friends. To some extent, he is pessimistic about friendships. Although he has only acquaintances, he is well aware of what friendships could be. “I don’t really consider any men my friends. I look at them as associates. There are individuals who I communicate with on several different things. I have associates who I communicate with on strictly business matters. There are others who I can just hang out with and have fun. With these individuals, I go out to a sports bar, athletic games, and fishing trips. I have a lot of fun with them but I do not really look at them as friends, just associates…. I wouldn’t say I have a lot of friends.” When asked what a friendship means to him he says, “It means someone who is really honest, loyal, and trustworthy. I just don’t know anyone who fits into that category that I would consider a friend. It seems to me that no one is really honest when you get right down to it.”

Although Larry says he has no friends, these “associates” clearly provide at least two of the benefits that friendships offer. He spends time with them, and he has fun with them. He has not, however, allowed himself to let down his guard with these men. He keeps them a bit at arm’s length, consistent with what men do with their just friends.

(p.56) Are Friendships Important to You?

The perception out there is that men are uninterested in friends, do not seek them, and are uncommunicative with the friends they have. But almost every man (90%) we talked to said that friendships are important. As some men answered this question, they elaborated more on their definition of friendships. What follows are comments from some of the men we’ve just introduced, as well as comments from the tenth man, Greg.

Greg is a 43-year-old white film production supervisor. To him, loyalty and a connection through sports or some other activity are important components of friendship. He describes friends on a continuum, and says friends connect us to the broader world. “Friendships are very important. I don’t think I have a great number of people that I consider to be good friends because, based on my definition of it, there’s a great deal of time and commitment required. I suppose you can have different grades of friendships—primary, secondary, tertiary, that kind of thing. It’s one of the major ways you establish a link to the community, to the world that you live in, so you’re not completely focused on yourself. It’s a way to grow: through their problems, or through listening, you can gain insight or avoid certain pitfalls.”

Greg’s primary, secondary, and tertiary could also be the must, trust, and just categories. His notion of connecting to the broader community is consistent with the view in this book that friendships can help build better neighborhoods and broader support systems.

Al, the nurse, has grown away from his high school friends and finds his new friends re-enforce his marital relationship. “Friends are absolutely important. Guys have a bonding thing. I’m in a profession where I do not have a lot of work-related male friends. My male associates primarily come from the racquet club. I play a lot of racquetball. I wouldn’t call most of those close friendships. I would call them associations (just friends). I have always broken friends down. There are good friends and [there are] associations. My high school buddies were friends in high school but now they are associations (rust friends). I basically don’t know them anymore because I’ve been away so long.

“My close friends now come basically from the parental side of things. They are parents of my children’s friends. We have developed strong friendships both as a couple and individually. For instance, my friend Mike and I ride motorcycles. He is the father of my daughter’s friend. You make associations along those lines. An association is someone you do (p.57) like but do not see outside of the arena in which you met them. Even these friendships are important (trust friend). There is a certain bonding that goes on.”

Casey, who works in construction, believes friendships are vital to him because, “It’s important to have somebody I can talk with, somebody who can support me, and I can give my support to. It’s for both of us. I give my friendship with all my heart, and that means a lot. Good friends always keep secrets, and friendship entails never giving away what I know about my friends, and vice versa. That’s important to me. I support my (must) friends in any way I can, and I get the same from them.”

David, the mental health worker replied, “If I’m a friend, I would give you the shirt off my back because it takes a lot for me to consider someone a friend. That means I know as much history as you’re conscious about, and you know the same about me. We share personal things. That’s stuff that most males, particularly African-American males, don’t share, and it just doesn’t happen because it supposedly shows weakness. To have a (must) friend means to have a belief in another individual, which is a great prize for humanity with all the mistrust in this world.”

Felix talks about the importance of friendships that are made up of must friends and also just friends. This latter group is, in his description, one that he uses and who he believes use him. “Friendships are very important. I like quality friendships. I don’t like a lot of friendships. I like to know the people I am friendly with I can count on, that they are there for me. My whole social life has changed in the last five years since my business has taken off, and I have a high-profile account, and I’ve been told I need to be careful to separate out those people who want to be friends with me because of the account and those who want to be friends with me because of me. And I have made some very good friendships from the account, and I know that if you have a few good friends at the end of your life, you are doing well.”

So, what about the men who said friendship was not important? Who are they? This small group raised issues about the roles that spirituality and family play in their lives. Some men linked friendships to God, and others saw God as a substitute for friendships. A 40-year-old African-American special education teacher said friendships were not important because, “You don’t need friends to live. A person can live if he is spiritually in touch.” Another teacher, a 33-year-old Orthodox Jew, said a great deal of his time was spent in observance rituals or with his wife and family, leaving little time for friends.

(p.58) So, for a few men, spirituality or family replaces friendship with other men. These obligations may prevent the maintenance of friendships, but they also reduce the need for friendships (we come back to the role of family in reducing the need for friendships later).

Do You Have Enough Friends?

Malcolm Gladwell, the journalist who authored The Tipping Point and Blink, writes that, if you make a list of people whose death you will be truly devastated by, you will come up with around 12 names. Some of those will be family members and others close friends. “To be someone’s best friend requires a minimum investment of time. More than that, though, it takes emotional energy. Caring about someone deeply is exhausting.”95 For many people, a circle as large as 12, including family members, is more than enough.

Questioning whether one has enough friends begins in childhood. Children and teenagers often complain to their parents that they do not have friends or that they do not have enough friends. Do adults say this to themselves also? For some, one friend is enough; for others 12 is not enough. As adults, if we do not have many friends, we often adjust by filling in the gap with hobbies, forming a significant relationship with one person, or becoming absorbed with work or family. In fact, some men we interviewed “blamed” work and family for hindering friendships, saying, “I’d like to hang out with the guys but I have to (fill in the answer): (a) go to the office or (b) be home with the wife and kids.” Obvious problems arise when work and family prevent a man from having enough friends.

When asked if they had enough friends, the men in this study answered:

  • I have enough friends, 60%

  • I do not have enough friends, 25%

  • I am unsure, 15%

Some men said they have enough friends, given the constraints on their time.

Yes, I Do

About six out of every 10 men in the study felt they had enough friends. The African-American men were more apt to say they have enough friends (p.59) than were the white men, with almost three-quarters giving this response. This may be a result of the collectivism that is more apt to mark African-American friendships than white friendships.96

Older men, the 50 and over crowd, were also slightly more likely to say they had enough friends—67% of them versus 60% for the whole sample. It is difficult to say whether these differences are significant, given the possible ways men could interpret the question, but it may be that older men have learned better either how to construct friendship networks or how to accept the networks that they have. But, for the oldest men, danger lurks. Having friends who are still alive into their 80s and 90s is not common.

Greg describes how changing circumstances affect his need for friends. “I do have enough friends and don’t crave more, but I am also not shunning more. I’m not saying my dance card is full with male friends, and you can’t get on it. I think it’s more that I pick and choose. It takes me a while to figure out, ‘Hey, they are a good friend.’ Am I open to meeting more? Absolutely, and as you move through life, circumstances around you change, and you can meet more people, but I don’t think I’m waiting for more male friends.”

Isuko makes a distinction between friends he sees frequently (his must friends) and those from the past (his rust friends) whom he sees occasionally. He said he had enough but, “that doesn’t stop me from making more. There’s enough occurrence of seeing so many people and knowing what I’ve talked about with them that I know they’ll be friends for a long time with me. That’s enough, because I remember the feeling from being with them, and it’s a good feeling. I have friends also that I have not seen for a long time. What I’ve discovered is, even though I haven’t seen them in a while, it picks up from where it left off. So that is enough, because I feel I can easily open up.”

Felix is working on the number of his friends. “Well, I have male friends in New York, but because I don’t hang out with a group of guys, I don’t have people here like I could call back in Atlanta where I grew up. I have that in New York with women friends but not with male friends here. One woman kind of adopted me when I moved here—I feel like I have a family here and have worked hard to not feel like an outsider here. So I would say I would have enough friends, ultimately. In the last six to eight months, I am making a greater effort to make friends. I’ve been traveling a lot so people don’t think I am here that much. But I am reaching out more and have become more gregarious.”

(p.60) Some men felt that they had enough friends given the time they had, but that they never had much time because of work and family demands. Ben said he could be happy with the number of friends he has, but it is hard for him to make new friends now that he is out of school. He worries he doesn’t have time for the friends he already has.

Jack said, “You can’t have too many friends. This one here (referring to baby Roger, whom he was bouncing on his knee) is enough of a friend for me now.” I pushed him as to whether he had enough friends now that he was a stay-at-home dad and a relatively new transplant to a big city. “I don’t have any friends here, but it is hard to make them when you have a kid going and you are working 10 hours a day. You need to have someone who has a baby, also. Being a dad, it is difficult to make friends because I am into doing the same thing like carousing, going to the gym, going to the sports bar. It is a pretty significant change. I did go out to a restaurant with a friend back home and took Roger with me. But I have no other friends in my same situation.”

Hal believes he has enough friends to “go about the business of life.”

No, I Do Not

The men who said that they did not have enough friends (one in four in the study) felt they were missing out on something. They can perhaps benefit most from reading this book.

Al says, “Actually, I could use more. The friends at the club, the racquetball guys (just friends), I see them at the club but not outside. I have a small social circle. It is partially my family, partially myself and my wife, our relationship. I probably had more male friends before I was married because I spent a lot of time at the club and played ball with them. It was that type of friendship, light, not deep.”

Some men did not lament not having enough friends. For example, the oldest man in the survey, Frank, an 85-year-old white retired poultry dealer, was resigned to his number of friends, given his age and family and work obligations, “I don’t have any (friends). I had them in the past. Part of the reason is that most of my friends aren’t alive. Even when I was young and raising a family, I never had time for friends. I always had to work very hard, and we were a close-knit family. So, friends weren’t really a part of the family. As a surrogate father to some nephews and nieces, that took up time, too.”

Another interesting example of a man who feels he does not have enough friends comes from Chang, a 24-year-old Chinese American. His family’s (p.61) history in the United States has had a deep impact on his friend-making skills, and he may epitomize what other immigrants experience. “As a kid, we weren’t allowed to have any friends. My father came over to America as an illegal immigrant, and my parents were always afraid that they would be found out. We lived in an apartment behind the hand laundry business that we ran. My parents were very embarrassed about where we lived and the business that we had, so we never had people over nor was I allowed to make friends.”

I Am Unsure

About one in six of the men in the study were unsure if they had enough friends. Ed questioned the notion of what constitutes enough friends and also cited the difficulty in making true friends, “I don’t know if you can quantify. A half a dozen might be too many. I’m talking about true friends (must friends). There are not too many who meet the requirement of a true friend. I could call four to six people and ask them for money or Ravens’ tickets but they are not necessarily true friends. My best (must) friend—we can sit beside each other for hours and not say anything. We are really solid. He’s a retired police officer. One of my previous best friends (a must friend), another taxi driver, was shot in the head and killed. We had the same kind of relationship. We’d hang out together until 1:00 A.M. at a local diner. What a shock when I heard he had been killed. That was five years ago. Like me, he was a Vietnam vet.”

One unexpected finding from the men in the study was that those who grew up in Maryland and have lived there their whole lives were more apt to say they did not have enough friends. Another way of looking at this is that people who have moved around may be more apt to believe they have enough friends than those who have remained in their home area their whole lives. It could be that once a man begins to move, his expectations about friendships begin to change. The bar may be lowered when he leaves his hometown, and he may expect that one of the losses from moving may be the loss of friends. Also, a man may remain in his hometown into adulthood to maintain friendships. If he watches those friends then leave town or not remain a friend, he could conclude he has lost friends and does not have enough.

Using Work as a Substitute for Friends. Some men work all the time precisely to avoid others—they may be afraid to establish close relationships (p.62) and so turn to work as an excuse. Others come to believe they don’t need friends at all. Many of us know people who are obsessed with work. Academia is rife with men who work long hours in the service of research. One fellow I know, although there are others like him, is not especially social and puts in long hours at the office. If he had more friends, would he work less hours?

There are many excellent reasons why men work hard. For many men, it is a way of giving their all for their family and defining themselves as a successful breadwinner and man. If we temporarily seal ourselves off from others to finish building a new room in a house, to complete a dissertation, or to cover a series of swing shifts at the factory, we are not acting in a dysfunctional way. We all get busy, but it is important to maintain balance and leave room in our lives to attend to our relationships.

Relying Instead on Family. It is interesting to consider that society has the term “workaholic” but not the comparable “familyaholic.” A man can be accused of being too consumed with work to the exclusion of other activities, but not too consumed with his family. But what if his absorption resulted in a lack of friends? A man’s first obligation is to his family, although many who have longstanding friendships would argue that a friend, say an old Army buddy, could be a very close second. When you toss the children into the mix, the scale tilts even more toward the family obligation.

During long periods of a man’s life, a wife (or significant other) and children often take precedent—and by lengthy periods I mean from the children’s birth into their teenage years. Even as the teenagers are struggling with independence, the man’s obligation to his children and partner do not disappear. Where does time with friends fit in? Is it okay if the father has no time for friends?

Like absorption in work, it is a problem if the balance the father has struck is tilted too far to the family, with no attempt made to maintain outside friendships, because those friendships are needed for his continual growth. In fact, if the father has tilted too far toward the family, he may be sending a dangerous message to them that family obligations should be all-consuming and that people should not explore outside relationships. Children learn from their fathers about friendships, and so fathers must model healthy friendships with other adults.

A 48-year-old Latino counselor, Oscar, talking about the family and friend balance he tries to strike said, “I don’t have enough time for them. I don’t have enough time for my kids, my wife, or even me. When I do try (p.63) to get together with my friends, it can’t be spontaneous. I have to plan. It’s sad, and I really long for more.”97

Blaming Ourselves. Some men are raised to accept responsibility for their own actions at an early age; others come to that point later in life and may tend to externalize a lot of behaviors that get them into trouble. For example, work problems may be blamed on the boss, bad grades on the teachers, and losing competitively in sports on the (pick one): referee/umpire, bad line call, weather, or bad luck. Recognizing that one’s own behavior can contribute to the ability (or lack thereof) to make friends is one way of understanding why some men may not have enough friends. We heard from a few men who have the insight to look at their own behavior and feelings as the root cause for not having enough friends.

A 44-year-old white married social worker, Dylan, blamed himself. In part, he does not feel masculine enough and equates masculine behavior with friendships, a theme explored in greater depth in the next chapter. “I think that I have a lack of confidence in male friendships. I have trouble finding men who are truly similar to me. I am not entirely comfortable with men. I am not into ‘locker room talk,’ and the football game atmosphere really gets to me. I dislike the macho stuff, drinking, etc., that many men do.”

A 78-year-old white retired minister, Geoff, also had doubts about his abilities to make friends. “I blame myself because I tend to be introvertish. It is a matter of trust. You want to have a friend you can spill your heart to, and I am not sure I trust people to really hear objectively what I may have to say.”

Conclusion: Defining Friends and Friendship

No matter how they are defined friends and friendships are vitally important to men’s lives and are based on being understood, trust and loyalty, dependability, and doing things together. Some men feel they do not have enough friends and want more of them. Others are torn between wanting more friends and believing their first obligation is to their families or their jobs.


(90) . Matthews (1986) describes the lack of consensus about how to define a friend as one of the gaps in the literature.

(91) . Putnam (2000).

(92) . Stroud (2006), p. 503. She goes on to write that the ethics of the friendship mean that you owe it to the friend to publicly defend him.

(93) . The American Medical Association Web site does not list surgery as one of the top seven specialties for women, and there are 10 women in internal medicine and seven in pediatrics for every one in surgery. According to the Census Bureau (2006b), there are 143,000 fathers taking care of children at home, as compared with 5.6 million mothers in that role—a ratio of one stay-at-home dad for every 39 stay-at-home moms.

(94) . Norah Vincent, a reporter, went “underground” as a male for 18 months. In her book, Self-made Man, she describes her experiences with joining an all-male bowling league. Despite her bowling incompetence, she felt totally accepted by the men and could take a humorous look at herself, too, as Isuko does. “They made me look ridiculous to myself, and they made me laugh about it. And for that I will always be grateful to them, because anybody who does that for you is a true and great friend” (2006, p. 61).

(95) . Gladwell (2002), p. 177.

(96) . Coleman, Ganong, & Rothrauff (2006).

(97) . Some of these quotes appear in my 2006 article in the journal Family Therapy.