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Interview: Celebrating the Power of Friendship


A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair. – Samuel Johnson

Researchers at the University of Maryland have mapped the geography of male friendship. The findings shed light on what makes friendships tick and why they are important.

The study is based on interviews with 386 men from diverse backgrounds. Participants ranged in age from 21 to 85 years. Researchers also interviewed 122 women to get a female perspective on same-sex friendships.

Dr. Geoffrey Greif

Dr. Geoffrey Greif

Sociologist Geoffrey Greif has explored his study in a warm and compelling book, Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships (Oxford University Press). Dr. Greif is an award-winning scholar and teacher. He is a professor in the school of social work at the University of Maryland. This is his tenth book.

To find out more, AHB reached Dr. Greif in Baltimore, Maryland.

Ruth Dempsey: In the book we meet guys you’ve played poker with for more than 40 years. What keeps you connected?

Geoffrey Greif: Friendships that stretch back this long often run on autopilot, and some of these wax and wane as interests ebb and flow. For example, if I start playing golf, it might enhance my relationship with one guy at the game and hurt it with another if it draws me away from him.

RD: Why talk to participants about their fathers’ friendships?

GG: Often men do not take the time to think about their upbringing. So they may be unconsciously repeating unhealthy patterns. I recommend men think about the messages learned from their fathers and whether they actively want to emulate them or attempt other ways of interacting. And, not just with their male friends, but with their children and significant other, also. Bottom line: men need friends both for themselves and to serve as role models for their children.

RD: You break friendship down into four categories.

GG: That’s right. The closest friends I call MUST friends. These are people you must call if something extraordinary happens to you – a death in the family or winning the lottery.

For example, Tab, a 60-year-old white administrator described a close or must friend this way: “Close friends are there for you in adversity, in family situations and at work. They listen and offer information that is based on their own experiences, or they just listen and say nothing, which is also good at times.”

The second and larger group of friends is your TRUST friends. You trust them. You like them every time you see them, but you don’t always travel in the same circle as they do. You may or may not make specific plans to see them, but whenever you run into them, you feel close to them.

Your RUST friends are your old high school or college friends. You see them every so often and they bring back old memories, like at reunions. Some of these become your MUST or your TRUST friends, but many are just people you have known for many years and with whom you may not feel especially close.

Finally, JUST friends are acquaintances – people at work you have lunch with if you see them, perhaps, but you do not feel especially close with them.

These groupings can help us understand our interactions with people, and help us figure out who we want to get closer with and who we want to keep at arm’s length.

RD: The men talked about the importance of being understood.

GG: Yes, when we asked 386 men how they defined friendships, being understood was the quality most often mentioned. Men like friends, or wing men, who “have their back.” They want to feel they are understood and that the guy will stand up for them when they need a friend.

Trust, loyalty and dependability are also big-ticket items. As Arnold, a 41-year old electrician put it, “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.”

RD: Do men feel they have enough friends?

GG: This is a hard question to answer. Some men we interviewed said one good friend was enough for them. Others needed a lot more social stimulation and liked having friends for different activities.

RD: Mick is in his 50s. He is excited about his new online friend. How important are online friendships?

GG: It varies from one person to the next. Some need to check in with friends to stay in the loop. Others share more on-line than they do in person so this form of communication can benefit them a great deal.

RD: And Donald enjoys going to the local senior center. It seems older men need spaces to hang out . . .

GG: That’s right. Without places to go, men’s ability to socialize is greatly hindered. Men, in general, like to get together with friends and do things. They have shoulder-to-shoulder relationships while women have face-to-face relationships. Women feel more comfortable sitting and talking with their friends.

Donald is divorced. He has been going to the center for 10 years, since he was 60, when he retired as a construction engineer. He goes there for lunch. He plays tennis and basketball. He plays pool and watches movies with his TV friends. Outside the center, Donald likes to hunt and fish. He also likes to read.

RD: Men have the capacity to form significant relationships late in life, but they usually don’t . . .

GG: Men often put great stock in their long-term relationships. When they get together with their high school friends, they are 16 again. But as we age, friends move away or die. Men are reluctant to make new friends because they compare them to their old friends. New friends can never match old friends in the ways they make us feel because they cannot bring back our youth.

At the same time, research shows people with friends live longer and healthier lives. So men (and women) must stay open to making new friends as we lose the old ones.

RD: Finally, what tips do you have for men looking to make new friends?

GG: I certainly got a lot of tips from the more than 500 men and women we interviewed for Buddy System. Here’s four:

1. Get involved in activities that are important and fun to you. Events and activities are good places to meet people, be it across the chessboard, at the house of worship or on the basketball court.

2. Stay open to meeting new people and be outgoing when new people are around.

3. Learn from the book that being a good friend means listening and accepting people, being trustworthy, dependable and loyal. If you are having trouble making friends, maybe your expectations and actions are not conveying these qualities.

4. Finally, think about your own family’s history and how that might affect what you are looking for in friends.