Sunday, December 4, 2011

Reinventing the Wheel

Here’s another exhange with my cousin Betty.

This morning she sent me the following message about male-female differences and asked me if I agreed. Here’s the message, and my response:
In an evening class at Stanford the last lecture was on the mind-body connection - the relationship between stress and disease. The speaker (head of psychiatry at Stanford) said, among other things, that one of the best things that a man could do for his health is to be married to a woman whereas for a woman, one of the best things she could do for her health was to nurture her relationships with her girlfriends.

At first everyone laughed, but he (sic) was serious. Women connect with each other differently and provide support systems that help each other to deal with stress and difficult life experiences. Physically this quality "girlfriend time" helps us to create more serotonin - a neurotransmitter that helps combat depression and can create a general feeling of well being. Women share feelings whereas men often form relationships around activities. They rarely sit down with a buddy and talk about how they feel about certain things or how their personal lives are going. Jobs? Yes. Sports? Yes. Cars? Yes. Fishing, hunting, golf?

Yes. But their feelings? Rarely.

Women do it all of the time. We share from our souls with our sisters/mothers, and evidently that is very good for our health. He said that spending time with a friend is just as important to our general health as jogging or working out at a gym.

There's a tendency to think that when we are "exercising" we are doing something good for our bodies, but when we are hanging out with friends, we are wasting our time and should be more productively engaged-not true. In fact, he said that failure to create and maintain quality personal relationships with other humans is as dangerous to our physical health as smoking!

So every time you hang out to schmooze with a gal pal, just pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself for doing something good for your health! We are indeed very, very lucky. Sooooo... let's toast to our friendship with our girlfriends. Evidently it's very good for our health.

Forward this to all your girlfriends - and stay in touch!

Thanks to all the girls in my life who have helped me stay healthy, happy, and feeling very loved.

Life isn't about surviving the storm; but how you dance in the rain.



No, I don’t agree. Or, more precisely, I feel like the researcher's findings, even if true, could well lead to some wrongheaded thinking.

Whether I agree or not is not the question you should be asking and my answer should make no difference to you. If you have good friendships with women and you find them of higher quality than your friendships with men, what would it matter what some study has to say about whether or how women form friendships? The issue is not how most women can or should do it but what conclusions you should draw from the claim that women make better friendships than men do.

Even if it is true women make better friendships with each other than they do with men, I would hope no one would pass up a chance to form a friendship across the gender line. One needs to recognize that the conclusion is at such a level of generalization that it masks the complexity of life, where life is actually lived. In my own experience, nothing in the world has mattered more to me over the years than my friends, and I would never be persuaded by any study that suggested others have better friendships. For that reason I find the conclusion a silly one. Even if it is true that women in general make better friendships than men in general, individuals all make their own friendships, and how you live your life has little to do with these generalizations, unless you are foolish enough to stop following your own instincts and try to match all your behaviors to the behavior of others.

In my experience, the strongest friendships are formed when two or more people share a life-changing event. Some events, like fighting for your life in a foxhole, are more dramatic than others, but even living side by side and talking across the fence about trivialities for thirty years can build an unbreakable bond, if you’re open to letting one form. The latter example is as life-changing as facing a common enemy. It just takes longer to develop.

I understand there are individuals out there who have deep-seated psychological problems which keep them from trusting other people or seeing the value in other people. I’ve known people I would have to define as evil. And many more who are so totally self-centered I am convinced they don’t begin to understand what friendship even means. But most people I know, male or female, are capable of reaching out to others and trusting them with their lives. Gay men have their “fag hags” (and pardon the political incorrectness, but I’m of a generation that associates that word with some really fantastic cross the gender friendships.) Popular culture is full of male-bonding and female-bonding stories – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Thelma and Louise come to mind. Gender has no claim to ownership here.

After breaking up with somebody I’d been with for a dozen years, I hit a low spot in my life. Eventually, I found myself attracted to someone again. He became aware of my feelings and said to me, “I’m so sorry I can’t return your feelings. I wish I could do more for you.” I said to him, in all sincerity, “If this had happened to me in my twenties, I would be devastated. But it is happening to me in my fifties, and I’m coming from a place of believing I could never love again. You’ve proven me wrong, and given me the greatest gift anybody could give me.” I spent no time at all mourning that relationship that never got off the ground. I reveled in the fact that I was still alive, life being defined by the ability to love. I thought I’d used it all up. To my utter delight, I learned that it can actually grow with time and you can come to realize only the very young and the very foolish worry about finding someone who can love them. The rest of the world gets out there and finds people to love and reasons to love them.

Because that’s how I see the world, this alleged study of how men and women form friendships strikes me as largely irrelevant, and something akin to a lie by omission. The generalization overlooks not only individual differences, which have nothing to do with sex or gender, but also differences in how one responds to the layers of life built on experience.

I hope that speaks to your question.

Now let me turn, though, to a separate issue that your question brings up. I’ve been focused a lot lately on the phenomenon of things going viral on the internet. Don’t know if you’ve been reading previous blogs, but there was the story of the hard of hearing grannie and the lady who called the cops to complain about her loud neighbor playing music so loud “it knocked the plates off the wall.” A whole new phenomenon, the urban legend, has sprung up since the advent of the internet. Most of these stories fall under the rubric of entertainment. People pass them to friends the way they tell jokes to their friends. Others have some kind of didactic value, and I suspect this “head of psychiatry” tale is one of those.

I’m guessing this is an urban legend. (It's an educated guess, because the letter says the head of psychiatry is a man, but the Stanford website says the actual head is a woman.) I have to assume "the head of psychiatry" would not be making claims like this without research, and you didn't give sources for this claim, so I went looking. I found one link after another to affirmations of the alleged study’s conclusions here, here, here, and here. But they are all from women who are chiming in and agreeing from personal experience, not from women who have read the actual study.

Don't get me wrong. I trust that when all these women rush to agree with "the head of psychiatry's" conclusions that they're telling the truth as they know it. Why would anybody want to question this good news?

I know from personal experience that women can bond tightly and wonderfully with each other. I've also read a lot about how women act collectively while men act individually, how women seek to find solutions to problems where men seek to be king of the hill, how women look after the entire brood while men tend to prefer the strongest, etc. etc. It fits our notion of how men are lone warriors above all else while women work on the motherly instinct to protect all their children equally and choose security for all over the success of one or a few. And these are stereotypes all.

This view is stressed on yet another website by a woman who apparently makes a living confirming "the head of psychiatry's" conclusions - no doubt because they resonate so strongly with women and women want to make sure they are building a better life on those same conclusions.

By now I'm intrigued. Why can't I find the actual study? Even if it rings true, why is this beginning to look to me like an urban myth?

I went eventually to, of course, the source of the best information on urban myths. There is no mention of this Stanford study, so it can't be confirmed or denied that way. What I did find, interestingly, is a Facebook page with other people discussing going to snopes and finding the cupboard bare.

In this case, one doesn’t need Snopes, of course. It's easy enough to find out who the head of psychiatry at Stanford is. She is Dr. Laura Roberts. One could easily phone the department and ask if Dr. Roberts actually did make this statement and how she drew her conclusions. Their phone number is: (650) 723-6643.

But I'm not going to call. Not just because I suspect they are bombarded with calls from people wanting this story corroborated and don't want to add to their burden, but because I'd prefer to look at the story gone viral from what I think is a common sense perspective. As I’ve said, I think it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. If it inspires you to take a second look at your women friends and value them more highly, there’s no reason to give it a second thought. When it comes to “truth value,” it hardly matters whether it’s true or not and it matters even less whether somebody agrees. Perhaps especially if a man agrees or not.

One last note, though, on the potential didactic value. The older I get the more I marvel at how many times we invent the wheel. Back in the 60s when women’s movements got off the ground, one of the more important messages that came from them – I can’t remember whether it stems from Betty Friedan or Simone de Beauvoir or elsewhere now – was that women are programmed to identify themselves across many world cultures in terms of the men in their lives, and will readily abandon a friendship with another woman if it gets in the way of a chance to hook up with a man. For at least fifty years ago, women in America have been teaching each other to value each other as much as they value any man. And this has gotten easier to do as women have sought and gained the right to work outside the home and access to social resources and the independence they need to live unattached to a male breadwinner. Look to Afghanistan for the monstrous “before” picture. We don’t have a perfect “after” picture, and that would explain why this message resonates so strongly.

This “study,” if it actually exists, has the didactic value of preaching this important lesson once more, that gender roles and relationships are socially constructed and can be deconstructed and reconstructed when they are found wanting. And since most people don’t live their lives on the basic of research data, an urban legend should do that job just as well.

I could dismiss this as just another attempt to reinvent the wheel. But perhaps that's not fair. It's more a reminder that when cultural values change, it can take much longer than a single generation.


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