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"They care who you are, and they care what you are": the differences in friendship between women and between men according to the psychologist Robin Dunbar

July 18, 2023, 7:19 AM

July 18, 2023, 7:19 AM

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How many friends do we have? How good or close are they? How do men and women choose our friends? What do we privilege? How durable are they?

The famous British psychologist, anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar, emeritus professor at the University of Oxford, has spent years studying the subject of friendship.

Specializing in primate behavior, he is best known for having been the first to formulate the so-called Dunbar number, with a value of 150 in humans, which represents a measure of the “cognitive limit of individuals with whom a stable relationship can be maintained.”

Author of more than twenty books, including “Friendship”, “The Science of Love” and “The Odyssey of Humanity”, BBC Mundo spoke with him to find out more about the differences in male and female friendships and what they have true to the stereotypes that are usually attributed to them.

BBC

You say that friendships between men and women are different. What is the difference between them?

They differ mainly in terms of the intensity of their relationships.

Friendships between women tend to be much more emotionally intense, making them more dyadic (two people who end up bonding very closely).

Their friendship circles are based more on dual friendships than groups, whereas men tend to form friend clubs.

In general, the women’s friendships are similar to a hub-and-spoke model where each friend has a particular friendship with the friend in the center, but not necessarily with the other friends in a small group.

While the male circles are much more integrated.

Everyone is friends with everyone, but the quality and intensity of relationships are lower.

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Robin Dunbar, British psychologist, academic and anthropologist.

What do women and men look for in a friendship? What is the most important?

For women it is more important who you are as a person and not what you are.

While men care much more about who you are, what club you belong to.

They care less who you are.

Friendships between men are a bit more anonymous in that sense.

What would you say those clubs of friends are like?

In them, the fact that you belong to the club seems to be the most important thing. It is what defines friendship.

Many men know very little about their friends, but they accept them because they are part of the same club.

Buddy clubs tend to be very informal and this reflects the much more casual nature of male friendships.

Club membership is often casual as well.

They are friends who play indoor soccer or the guys who go drinking every Friday night.

Eligibility to be a member of a club is not very demanding.

Can you have a beer without spilling it on the table? If you can do that, then you are part of our club.

BBC

It is said that women tend to talk more about their emotions and feelings. What do men talk about?

Men do not talk so much about emotions, they tend to relate around activities, unlike women who express feelings. That is why women tend to have higher quality friendships.

The activities in the groups of friends are what give the club its nature.

In this context, men create bonds of friendship through laughter, while women do so through conversations and emotions.

That’s why women can tell you exactly what they talked about yesterday, with details and background, while men who were sitting at the same table can’t remember anything.

So, would you say that men need more of a physical presence, a friend who is physically present?

Yes, men need to be able to do things with their friends. They have to see them. If they don’t see them, the relationship evaporates. Not always, of course, but it happens frequently.

Friendships between women tend to last over time, even when they can’t see each other regularly, because they make an effort to talk or keep in touch.

Those things are less frequent among men.

That’s not to say that male friendships don’t last; some may last longer than female ones.

But if a woman’s friend moves to another country forever and they can’t see each other, they try to maintain the friendship through social media or over the phone.

And men lose a friend who moves…

Men often do not maintain regular contact with the friend who has left, but simply replace him.

For example, Jimmy is a member of the friend group who goes to the bar for drinks every Friday night, but he has moved to Thailand.

BBC

Instead of trying to keep in touch with Jimmy, the other friends say to each other, “Well, Jimmy was great, but he’s gone. I know Peter that he would be a great fit, we can include him in the group now that Jimmy is gone.”

This is changing over the years.

After a certain age, some men prefer to leave the club and stay with a single friend with whom they go to drink in the bar very calmly.

They become best friends.

Is communication still poor?

Probably many are still not having many deep conversations.

There is a wonderful photograph, seen a lot in newspapers and magazines, of two old Greek men outside a tavern sitting on either side of a table as the sun shines.

They sit quietly and occasionally lift their ouzo (Greek liquor) or their coffee to take a small sip.

I always say: that is the image of two men communicating.

Would you say that men are socially lazier?

Definitely. Many older men end up belonging to the husbands’ club of their wife’s friends, or their partner, and that’s because women are much more socially active.

They are more likely than us to organize social events, be it a dinner or whatever.

BBC

Sometimes the men who attend form their own club, but the only thing that holds it together is the fact that they are the husbands or partners of the women.

It’s completely circumstantial.

How important is it to have friends when we get older?

Here we can go to the reasons why we have friends.

One of them is to have moral and social support, and help, if we need it.

Good friends end up becoming a kind of protection and can even be an economic shock absorber.

On the other hand, friendships provide really considerable health benefits.

The best way to predict your physical and psychological health is to see the number and quality of good friends you have.

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Friendships have been shown to provide truly considerable health benefits.

The optimal number is you and four other friends, according to various studies.

Is that number close friends or friends in general?

Close friends, but include family as well.

As we get older, we tend to prioritize family.

It is also said to improve mental health.

On the psychological side, it greatly reduces the risk of falling into depression.

The activities we do with friends, talking, laughing, telling sad stories, singing, dancing, eating… all these things activate the endorphin system, which is activated in the part of the brain that controls pain.

They give you an emotional high that just makes you feel good, at peace with the world, confident.

When you fall into depression, your immune system is depressed and you are much more likely to be susceptible to diseases, particularly viruses and bacteria, because your body is unable to attack them effectively.

In the end, when you have very few or no friends, your life expectancy suffers.

BBC

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