09/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Friendship Olympics: Which sex wins the gold?

In the course of my own research on female friendships, I serendipitously found the perfect mentor to teach me about male friendships and the differences between the two: Geoffrey L. Greif, DSW, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and author of the new book, Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Dr. Greif studied 386 men and 122 women, whom he interviewed in depth about their definitions of friendship, how they made friends, how they maintained them, and whether they had ever lost friends. --These questions and answers represent just a few of the lessons he learned and that he shares in greater detail in his excellent book:

Q: How do male and female friendships differ from one another?

Through listening to men and women and studying what they tell us about friendships, certain tenets about friendship can be cautiously put forth. We must be careful though about making sweeping generalizations about women's friendships, just as we must be careful about making generalizations about men's. Great diversity exists in the friendships of both genders---but:

---Women are more apt to say they have enough friends and that friends are important; they are less apt to say they didn't have time for friends. Although the majority (60%) of men say they have enough friends, 40% do not have enough or are unsure, a greater number than women. It may be that some men are pulled by work and cannot find the time to balance friends, work, and family. Or, it could be as we have heard from some men: that they have a hard time connecting with other men in a way that is satisfying to them on a friendship level. They may feel they do not have enough must friends. (Grief uses four categories to describe friendships: must, trust, rust and just).

---Women are more apt to help each other than are men, by being supportive, encouraging, and "being there." Men, on the other hand, are more apt to give their friends advice and offer their perspectives. Both mentioned the importance of listening and talking. Men tend to be fixers, and see getting something concrete accomplished as a way of helping, whereas women are more comfortable with emotional support, which sometimes involves listening without giving specific advice.

---When with friends, women spend more time shopping, going out to dine with them and going to the movies, as well as staying home with friends to cook or watch movies. Communication, as part of the relationship, is frequent for both women and men. Men, who gave fewer distinct responses to this question, are much more apt to be involved in sports-related activities, either as a participant or viewer.

---To make friends, women may reach out to others a bit more than men, and they are less concerned with finding commonalities as a basis for friendships. Men mention sports more often than women as a basis for making friends. To feel comfortable, men may be slightly more apt to need a socially acceptable arena for having a friendship begin, like a similar hobby or sports. This would be a shoulder-to-shoulder approach to friendships, as opposed to women perhaps feeling slightly more comfortable making friends without a specific activity or commonality being at the center of the friendship.

---To maintain a friendship, women put a much greater value on frequent contact than men. Men often mention being able to pick up again with a friend after little contact, whereas women place a greater value on staying in touch. Women appear to need more communication in general than men. Emotional connection is important to them, and it is often manifested by staying in frequent contact.

---Women are more apt to lose friends and more apt to try to get them back than are men. We have learned already that men are often less concerned about slights than women and so they may be slightly less apt to lose a friend because of someone's behavior.

Q: How are male and female friendships similar?

---The words used to define friendships are similar. Being understood, trust, dependability, and loyalty are key features of friendships for both genders.

---The percentage of people who said they had a friend of the opposite sex is similar.

---The importance of friends, although slightly higher for women, is very high for both men and women.

---Women and men both make friends through their spouses and significant others.

---Women's friendships can also be effectively grouped using the must, trust, just, and rust categories. These categories of friendships are discussed in depth in the book and help us understand our relationships with friends.

Q: What can men learn from female friendships?

Men can learn that physical and emotional expressiveness can exist in a friendship without it meaning that a man is gay. Women are much less concerned about this level of expressiveness than are men who often pull back from other men. Men are socialized to compete with and not pursue other men as friends. Unless it is sports, music, or war; emulating men, having a "crush" on them, and being physically close, is not universally acceptable.

Q: What can women learn from female friendships?

Men tend to have less complicated friendships than women. Some women, when directly asked, said they wished their relationships were more upfront and less emotionally demanding. They like the fact that men are able to resolve differences more quickly and move on.

"Cultural relevance is key," cautions Dr. Greif. "Different sub-groups in America view friendships, women's and men's roles, and community connectiveness in vastly divergent ways. Anything that can be learned from men or women must be understood within such a context."

In your own experience, which friendships do you think are stronger or more meaningful, male or female?

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author who blogs about female friendships at HuffPost and She is a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and is working on a book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever, which will be published by Overlook Press.