Boy-Type Friends. Can men and women be friends?

When I first started working, a female co-worker told me that a woman either had a romantic relationship with a male or nothing at all. I was shocked. Could that be true? That underlying every male/female relationship was some sort of sexual tension? And if that were true, how could I work in the male dominated industry I had chosen—or for that matter, any industry at all?

I began to examine my relationships with men. I worked in agri-business, so there was nothing but men to examine as peers and superiors at the time. The women in business for the most part were in supporting roles—secretaries, clerks, human resources/personnel. The men held all the management positions. It was the late 1970s, and the world was on the cusp of change.

I was fresh out of college. Young, fit, attractive as only young women can be. I was of Japanese ancestry, so I came with all the baggage of the stereotypically exotic Asian woman. I wore makeup at a time when liberated women were burning their bras, letting armpit and leg hair grow wild, and bell bottom blue jeans were the uniform.

Men were my supervisors for the full 20 years of my career. Fewer than ten women were my peers throughout the first ten years of my career, only after that were women gaining footholds throughout the organization. Safe to say my success was dependent on getting along with men.

But romantic? The men that I worked with?

The men were so OLD! Early in my work, I couldn’t imagine romantic involvement with a co-worker. They all seemed like middle-aged, over-weight, saggy father-figures. The thought of going to bed with one of them seemed ludicrous. I also had a strict rule that I adhered to: Don’t mix business and pleasure. That adage probably saved my career. I worked hard at being gender neutral. I knew I wasn’t “one of the guys” but I also felt comfortable, if not playing poker at the table, watching and drinking along with the best of them.

I don’t totally agree with my girlfriend’s assessment. And I say, “totally” because I do think there’s some truth to her stand. An element of attractiveness exists for friendships between men and women, just as there is an element of attractiveness between women who are best friends. This attractiveness—whether physical, mental, metaphysical—makes a person more or less desirable as a friend or lover. And here are a few examples of men who have been my best friends. And before I get too deep into this, my apologies to my friends who were lovers, too. This isn’t about you. It’s about boy-type friends who were—or are—just good friends.

Clyde

In high school I had a chummy friendship with a boy named Clyde. He was a country boy, never had the nicest clothes, wasn’t on any of the sports teams, wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree. But Clyde and I had a bond that went beyond the surface. Our dad’s were good friends growing up. They both lived down a country road in Dunmore, Montana and grew up neighbors and friends. Because of that, Clyde and I had a connection that went beyond school to our very roots.

I was one of the popular girls—cheerleader, class officer, outgoing, nice clothes, with a family and siblings that had excelled before me—and my friendship with Clyde reminded me that my roots were really country roots, too. We never dated. We never held hands. But we would tease each other between classes. I would call him Clod, as in “clodhopper”, and he would grin sheepishly, but I knew he liked it.

Clyde died in a farm accident when we were in high school. He was turning bales in a hayfield and had his horse tied to his waist. The horse shied from something, and drug him to his death. I sat with his FFA mates at his funeral. It was such a sad day, and it makes me sad just thinking about it today.

John

In college every freshman took a freshman seminar. Mine was poetry writing (go figure—my roommate was put into Etruscan history, how strange) and John was in my poetry seminar. I don’t remember anyone else from that class. But somehow, through those tumultuous, life-expanding, four years of discovery, John and I stayed in touch. I remember taking a poetry class my last quarter of college, perhaps to close the circle of learning, and I have a vague recollection that John was in that class, too. I could be wrong. But we’ve stayed in touch since 1976, exchanging holiday cards ever since. His career has been fascinating to follow—he was in the world of bio-tech before bio-tech was a thing—and through Christmas cards I learned of his marriage, children, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and retirement. As I recall, one of our bonds was also of growing up rural. John grew up in rural California, unusual as most of the California kids were from bigger schools, and the fact that people don’t think of California as having much rural to it. We still exchange holiday cards. I just mailed his out today.

Larry

My first friend in Minnesota was introduced to me by Gary, a college buddy, who told me I would have to reach out first because Larry wouldn’t and that I would get along because Larry played tennis and skied. So I did, and we became best friends. Larry introduced me to ski patrolling which I did for several years before I switched over to ski instruction. We played an inordinate amount of tennis back in the day. My kids called him Uncle Larry. He took my oldest son to basketball games. He came to my wedding in Montana (chased out of Glacier Park due to bear attacks) and he was one of the first people I called when my husband died.

Larry and his wife LeOra have been steadfast in my life, even when we went years without really seeing each other. One of the best ski trips ever was with Larry, Scot and me, spring skiing in shorts at Brighton, UT.

And now when our knees and hips and elbows don’t take to tennis as well as they used to, Larry invited me to join his pickleball group and then started a Covid weekly check-in email with Gary; the same Gary who introduced us back in the 80s. Gary should be on this list, too!!

Carold

One of my favorite co-workers at Cargill was Carold. Yes, like a boy named Sue, Carold spent the first few moments of every new introduction explaining his name. He was for sure the nicest, funniest, cleverest guys I had the good fortune to see every day for years at the office. Carold grew up in Granite Falls, Minnesota, a town, I would bet, that is still recovering from some of his childhood pranks. One time Carold and I were on a business trip and came across a wedding party (it might have been a class reunion; the details are blurry. There may have been alcohol involved.) at the hotel where we were staying, we pretended to be guests, and crashed the party. People were actually saying they remembered us. On my thirtieth birthday, I came into work to find my office filled with office furniture (not mine), balloons, trash and confetti—all the handiwork of the office staff led by Carold.

Carold and his wife were my first baby sitters, and I watched their daughter and son, Korean adoptees who look like me, grow up. His wife tells a story about when she and Carold met and fell in love; she had no clue what his financial situation was, but he had a hot car and smooth smile. When Carold and Lynn were living in Vonore, Tennessee, Scot and I visited them. They were enjoying the good life on a lake, golfing and boating with the new friends they were making.  I loved this guy and his family like my own.

You know the saying, “The good die young.” A few years ago, Carold and Lynn were on a cruise through Scandinavia (probably looking for his roots and some trouble) when he fell ill and discovered cancer. In months he was dead. I couldn’t imagine the hole that created until my own husband died a few years later.

His legacy lives on. His daughter works for a large consulting firm, and she reached out to me to do a book and business speaking engagement for her company; and his son (who I believe had perfect scores on his college entrance exams which means he took after Lynn) is an attorney that rose through the ranks of the US Attorney General’s office and now is a big shot at 3M.

Dennis

I met Dennis on a sales call when Scot and I first began our IT consulting firm. Dennis needed help with their CRM system, and that’s what we did. His company was a small firm that developed reporting tools and custom applications for IBM’s AS400 computer systems. It must have been around 2003 when we first met. I ended up working with him not only on his Customer Relationship Management apps, but also as a business consultant developing some of his first business plans.

Ours was a relationship build on business and lunch. His hangout was The Roasted Pear. He went there so frequently that he had his own table and a waitress who was on a first name basis. Dennis became my mentor. I consulted with him on every major business decision and even some minor ones. He bounced ideas off me, too. I often wished that I had people like Dennis around early in my career for guidance—my father had died when I graduated from college so I had no one to turn to for business advice. And mentorship wasn’t a thing yet in my early career.

He had several female friends that he connected with in a similar fashion. At the same time, his wife worked for the company in a technical and finance role. She and I lunched a few times, but it was clear that the business and friend relationships were between me and Dennis.

Dick

We met as competitors first, vying over clients. Fierce rivals, sometimes attending business conferences where our paths had to cross, though we never shared a beverage at the bar back then. But when we needed help at our consulting firm, and at a time when Dick was semi-retired, he stepped up and became a member of our team as a business analyst and customer relationship manager. Foe transformed to friend.

Small in stature but intellectually large, Dick represented us at Cargill. I could trust him to “tell it like it was” and to also tell me to pound sand if I were off base. Even more importantly, he was the only other person who would tell my partner and husband Scot when he was wrong. And Scot was rarely wrong. He was fearless and sometimes grumpy. He had business experience beyond me but was willing to share it for the good of the team.

I consider him and his wife Sandy two of my best friends in my little town of Hopkins, Minnesota.

Friends sans Romance

Friends first, last and always. The common thread was mutual respect and admiration. A recognition of relational give and take, without the complexity of romance. And yet in each of these friendships, there was an element of attraction—be that historical connection, wit, common interests, competitiveness, mentorship–that drew us together initially and kept us together through the years.

My life refutes my girlfriend’s early comment that men and women can’t be strictly friends. I am living proof that we can!

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