I recently finished reading Friendship: An Expose, by Joseph Epstein. The book is billed as an “anatomy of friendship in its contemporary guises,” which I think is a description that sometimes holds up. Other times though, I found myself wondering “Is he serious? What world does he live in?” But then I realized, he lives in a 67-year-old professor’s world. That is to say, a world entirely different than my own.
There’s so much in this book I want to cover, but one passage I need to discuss now. It’s from the chapter that made my highlighter run out, about women and friendship. If I watched Lost, I’d say reading it made me feel like I was in Sideways World, but I still don’t entirely know what that means. Something about purgatory? Let me rephrase. Reading it made me feel like I was in bizarro world. (How wonderful that so many TV shows present us with alternate realities.)
Epstein writes, “According to the received opinion of the day, women are better at friendship than are men. … This is so—again, I’m reporting received opinion—because they are less competitive, which means less rivalrous, than men. They are also more easily given to intimacy and are thought to rush less quickly to judgment, which can put a terrible crimp in friendship.”
Obviously Epstein has never been a teenage girl.
Honestly, there’s a part of me that wants to hug the author. To say, “I can’t believe we have you fooled. Less competitive! Less judgmental! You are a good good man.”
I think most of his statement is pure crazytalk. Women aren’t less competitive than men, we’re just less obvious about it. Men compete in straightforward ways—on the basketball court, in political races—where women, and I’m generalizing here, foster under-the-surface rivalries. We smile and sing Kumbaya while silently comparing our lots in life—looks, clothes, families, smarts. And in my experience with judgment—both being judged and doing some judging of my own—it’s women who commit the brunt of it. At least, that’s what I get from the conversations with my husband when I say “she’s nice but not really my type” based solely on something as superficial as her shoes or the book in her hand. I’d go so far as to say that it’s judgment above all else (both our fear of it and the way we instinctually judge others, like a bad tick) that makes it so hard to find new BFFs as adults.
Epstein’s quick to say that this is not fact but “received opinion.” Is it really? I’ve always thought prevailing wisdom was that women are impossibly hard on other women. That we’re all straight out of Mean Girls.
Maybe it’s a case of grass being greener. Everyone thinks the opposite sex has the easier time of it. Or maybe female friendship is cattier among young women than it is for Epstein’s generation.
Were you as shocked as I when you read Epstein’s quote? Who do you think is more competitive and judgmental? Are women truly “better” at friendship? What does that even mean? And why do you think he has such a different read on the lady BFFs than I do?