Can Men and Women Just be Friends? – An Essay by Alex MacLean


I will admit it, I like men. I like the jokes they make, the way they talk, their sense of ease, and their superior, albeit oftentimes unwarranted, confidence. Maybe it comes from having a close relationship with my father or from growing up with two brothers, but I often find that I can connect well with men on a personal level. I have some of the best conversations, get some of my best ideas, and have some of the best nights out with men. I know that they’re not trying to compete with me, that there’s no personal jealousy or rivalry, that we’ll talk about something other than guys, and that we’ll probably have the liberty to act silly and even a little bit juvenile at times. Although my closest friends are, and will probably always be female, my friendships with men generally seem a bit less complicated. When befriending a male however, there’s always the unasked question which hangs in the air: what do they ultimately want out of this relationship? Which leads us to the age-old question: Can men and women just be friends?  Based on my experience and the depiction of male-female relationships in the media, it seems that friendship across genders is anything but black and white.


The other night, I went out with a group of new people I’d met in Montreal. I chatted up a guy at a dance audition and was soon invited to hang out with “him and his friends.” He seemed friendly and fun, as well as, possibly, a little bit gay. He wasn’t flamboyant but he was stylish and animated and he talked to me like he would to a male buddy and I didn’t think about this as a date. When I arrived at the house of the new group we immediately started to walk towards the desired destination and I started to get to know the individual members of the group. I was instantly drawn to a bubbly (and slightly drunk) girl who I quickly befriended while two of the other girls hung back. When we entered the bar, however, the bubbly girl disappeared while the two females continued to retreat, leaving me with the audition guy and his two male friends. His friends were fun. They drank beer, made jokes and asked me questions. I felt more comfortable standing with them than with the reserved females who seemed to be looking around the bar to see if men were checking them out. I seemed to be building a good rapport with these guys, when one of them suddenly asked me “are you going to add to the collection” while pointing to the slew of bras hung on the beamers above us. This instantly changed the dynamic of our exchange. Was I being hit on? Was I no longer a neutral member of the group? How should I answer!? I shrugged this one off but the night got weirder as it progressed. My audition friend asked me to dance, which I accepted while trying to maintain a slight space between us. He also danced with his female friends, in a variety of close and “non friend like” ways. Maybe I was reading too far into what was happening, or maybe this was a Montreal thing that I didn’t understand? Regardless of what was going on, I was having a very hard time reading the signs. At the end of the night he accompanied me outside while I tried to interact with all members of the group to change our dynamic.  The two girls continued to hang back, which again, left me with bra guy and audition guy. And the more I talked to the guys, the more the girls seemed to decide that I wasn’t to be trusted. Bubbly girl was nowhere to be found. At the end of the night, audition friend offered to walk me home. I promptly let him know that, “I’m ok, thanks!” and suggested instead that we maybe hang out again soon. I think I may have punched him in the arm.

These lines between friendliness and flirting, as the night conveyed, are easy to cross. And oftentimes friendliness is interpreted as flirtation. When the two are overlapping, it often feels like someone needs to take charge of the situation to determine what they want out of the interaction. This can often lead to awkward encounters and a feeling of rejection from one of the two parties.

Since moving to Montreal I met up with an old high school friend (let’s name him Bruce). Being new to the city, I was grateful to have someone to hang out with, to show me around, and who knew me in a way that any new friend could not. Bruce is warm and intelligent, and although we were both a bit shy at first, maintaining our Canadian reserve and feeling a bit like we didn’t know each other anymore after eight years, we quickly started to find good conversation. Bruce and I decided to meet at a local bar, and since he was taking a break from drinking, I decided that I would too. Our sobriety made it easy to keep a distance between us, maintain some formality and focus on listening to the music. When an acquaintance of Bruce’s walked in with a date however, we were relieved to cut our awkwardness by chatting with someone new. As I talked to the female and he talked to the male, I noticed that in many ways, there was less tension and expectation present in my conversation with this female than there was with my male friend. Given my bias for hanging out with guys, I was surprised that for the first time in the night, I felt totally relaxed. At one point, Bruce’s friend asked us if we were a couple. We both laughed nervously and said “What, us? No way! We’ve been friends forever”.  Although we were friends hanging out alone on a Friday night who may have gone on one or two dates back in high school. At the end of the night, since I’d missed the last metro home, Bruce invited me to stay over at his place. In our absolute sobriety, it seemed like a safe choice. We promptly played a game of Mad Libs before going to sleep. Once the lights were out however, Bruce pulled something which I was in no way expecting after the previous happenings of the night. “Would it be alright if I kissed you?” he asked.  My brain started buzzing as I quickly tried to decipher how I felt about this. Was I attracted to Bruce? What would a kiss mean? Would it be more awkward to say no? Does he feel obligated to ask me this? Why is he asking me this? Is this all that he wanted all along? Will this ruin our friendship? After a brief pause and obviously not enough thinking, I told him “Okay.” After about ten seconds into the kiss, I said, “I really don’t want to ruin our friendship.” The next morning, Bruce told me that he was glad we’d stopped at a kiss and that he agreed about our preserving our friendship (whether or not this was true). Now that we’ve gotten this out of the way, it seems that we can carry on with our friendship while also accepting that we occasionally have some lingering sexual tension.

My stories, although unique to me, are not uncommon. In fact, these intricate male, female friendships are so common that they have been the subject of countless television shows and movies. Look at the relationship between Jess and Nick on New Girl. They start out as friends, switch into an awkward “friends being attracted to each other” phase, try out a relationship, switch back into friendship and finally decide to resume their relationship. What about When Harry Met Sally? The two start out as acquaintances while they date other people, meet over coffee to discuss their respective relationships, decide that they want to become real friends, sleep with each other, stop being friends, and then finally end up with each other at the end of the movie. No Strings Attached? Friends turned sex buddies turned partners. The Gilmore Girls?  Lorelei’s best friend Luke eventually becomes her boyfriend. And don’t forget Ted and Robin from How I Met Your Mother. But for all these shows with quasi-friendships fraught with tension, we also have shows that prove men and women really can be friends. Look at Jerry and Elaine from Seinfeld and Liz and Jack from 30 Rock. So What’s the verdict?

In the cult movie When Harry Met Sally, Harry says, “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” I agree with Harry to the extent that the dynamics between men and women will always be different than between women and other women, At the same time however, if we can’t befriend men, and really befriend them, then aren’t we missing out on new perspectives and experiences? Doesn’t it position us to see the other gender in only an idealized, romantic way? As females, maybe we need to let go of the notion of being physically desirable to men and instead entertain the idea of being an attractive friend. Men may be different from us, but we also converge in many ways. Perhaps a relationship will come out of a close friendship, and maybe it won’t.

Both Bruce and the audition friend made passes on me, another testament to this grey area. However when I turned them down, we remained friends.  Bruce and I have had countless conversations, have watched endless Netflix movies and have even exchanged relationship advice. Bruce is comfortable being vulnerable with me in a way that most men aren’t, and as a result, we have a close friendship. Audition guy still invites me out with his friends and we catch up on our audition luck over Facebook. Audition guy and Bruce have similar goals and problems to me. They too experience rejection and heartache and anxiety.  They have money problems and dreams and goals and need to spend days helping their friends move. In the end, the three of us are not so different from each other.  We don’t spend the whole time together thinking about how not to have sex as popular culture may have you believe. In fact, we spend our time together talking about our lives and experiences, having confronted the initial possibility of a sexual relationship.  Though there may be chemistry between friends, that doesn’t mean that they need to have a relationship or can’t develop a friendship. With time sexual tensions can go away, and though possibly latent, they don’t necessarily dominate interactions. In order for these friendships to work, however, men need to meet women halfway. Friendliness should not automatically be equated with flirtation, and women can be charming and funny without being accused of leading someone on.

I came across an article the other day which stated that we were entering an “era of empathy”. While in past years we may only have been able to relate to and empathize those within our own race, social class, country, religion, etc., the article asserted that due to globalization we’re beginning to see the “other” in a more humane light.  I believe that this extends to gender as well.  Male, female friendships, although difficult to navigate at times, can also be some of the most fruitful friendships one might experience. If we can give up the ideas of what it “means” to be a man or woman and simply start deciding what it means to be a human, maybe we can stop dividing ourselves up so much. Although male, female friendships will always be different than same-sex friendships, my answer is yes, men and women can be friends. I know that I would’ve missed out on a lot of interesting perspectives if I didn’t believe this. If I could leave you with some words of advice, they would be to strike up conversations with those of the opposite gender because of the potential for friendship, not necessarily the expectation of a date. Also don’t assume that every stranger who talks to you is trying to hit on you.  Assume that your  humanity will give you something in common.


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