Desperately Seeking The Friend Zone

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My husband and I have a German friend, Gunther—late 30s, good-looking, smart, funny, and a genuinely nice guy.

Of course, he’s single.

A few weeks ago, we were hanging out together, pondering his romance woes over a few glasses of wine. But it wasn’t the preposterous fact that he was still unattached that lingered in my mind. It was an observation he made based on his visit to San Diego a few years ago.

“I think it must be difficult to make friends with a woman in the United States,” Gunther said.

Immediately, I became skeptical. What exactly did he mean by this?

Gunther explained: “My friends were out of town for a few days, so I went–alone–to a bar for a drink. There, I struck up a conversation with a woman. We talked for a while, and at the end of the night, I walked her home. She wasn’t my type, but I enjoyed her company, so I asked her to meet me the following evening at the bar.”

I thought I saw where this was going. So, I asked, “Did you buy her drinks?”

Gunther couldn’t remember, but admitted that it was a distinct possibility.

He met the girl the next night, walked her home after a few hours, and again asked her to meet for drinks the next day. By the third night of seeing each other, after they got to her house and he started to leave, she became angry.

“What’s wrong with you!” (According to Gunther, this was not a question). She followed up her statement with some colorful language and a few choice accusations. Naturally, Gunther was offended. But that quickly turned to bewilderment.

“What was her problem?” he asked us.

My husband and I shared a look and giggled.

“Third date. Sex,” I explained.

“It wasn’t a date,” Gunther countered. “I just wanted someone to hang out with. Can’t you do that in the US?”

My husband stammered out a partial response. At the same time, I grasped for my own explanation. There was just no easy answer. Yes, men and women can be friends. But, Gunther… really, you thought you were being “friendly?”

Maybe it’s the cultural difference, but the situational cues just seemed painfully obvious that he was seeking more than friendship.

Look, I’ve never been in the bar or dating scene in Germany. I cannot say with certainty that if Gunther had acted this way in Berlin, Munich, or Frankfurt, a woman would not have read romantic intentions into his actions. But, I can see why this jilted San Diego girl wondered what the heck was going on. I might suggest that she have handled the confrontation with a bit more tact, but Gunther’s scenario certainly made me reevaluate the question, “How do men and women become friends?”

Here was a guy just begging for entry into the friend zone. And getting miserably shot down.

I am a huge supporter of the notion that men and women can truly be friends. But Gunther’s “non-dates,” consisting of three evenings of long conversations, drinks, and walks home, screamed romance and not friendship. Really, by the third night, I’m pretty sure this lady was hoping Gunther would take her in his arms and whisper, “Liebling, I’m leaving for Dusseldorf tomorrow, and I’ve taken the liberty of reserving a table for us at my favorite beer garden.” On the movie screen in her mind, he gives her a knowing smile, holds up two airplane tickets, they kiss, and….

Yikes. No wonder she got so mad.

So what could he have done? He was by himself in a strange city and was just looking for someone to chat with. He found a woman interesting enough to have a multi-night conversation, yet not interesting enough to have a casual sexual encounter. How could he have conveyed this to her without hurting her feelings?

If you know, tell me, because I have no idea.

At first, I wondered if maybe he just wasn’t clear enough about his intentions. But given the setting, I’m not sure what he could possibly have said that wouldn’t have elicited a skeptical rolling of the eyes. If you’re a woman, and you get approached by a single man at a bar, bought drinks, chatted up, then walked home, are you really going to believe that he’s just looking for a friend? In this case then, perhaps Gunther could’ve been slightly more cognizant of the not-so-subtle messages that I’m positive were flying around him.

Still, he got off easy. He never had to see this woman again. He had the luxury of returning to his platonic German bar scene (which I am dubious of, by the way). But what if he was the new, single guy in town, and really just wanted a friend? How do you make friends–just friends–with a woman?

Personally, I’m a fan of making friends with your friends’ friends. Get them to take you out, introduce you to people. Because those friends have other friends! And it’s certainly a better option than approaching single women in bars.

So, if he’s still looking for friends–and only friends–next time we’re both in San Diego, I’m going to make sure I introduce Gunther to a bunch of people I know. And refuse to let him go downtown alone to do his own unique brand of prowling.

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  • Yeah… cross-cultural dating (or non-dating) is always a tough one to figure out! I feel for both parties but seeing as I don’t subscribe to the “Third date sex” rule, I don’t think he was in the wrong. It doesn’t sound like he ever kissed her. Maybe he could have alerted her to the fact that he was just visiting (and JUST looking for a friend)… although who knows, she still might have interpreted that as friends with benefits!

  • Ah poor guy and poor girl… I’m definitely going to share this with my German friends and ask them what they think. I’m tempted to say it was probably a cultural difference (otherwise, wouldn’t he have learned to be more obvious about his platonic intentions in previous encounters?)Either way, he must have learned an interesting lesson that night! I just hope it didn’t tarnish his opinion of American women

  • Hi! I really love your blog! I just started writing my own blog for my university class! I love how honest you are! I really like how this post, and your other posts are so relatable! We all have relationships, and we all try to date and we all go about it differently.
    I’m young, and in a committed relationship so I’ve personally never had an experience like Gunther’s. I do agree that it does seem hard to become friends with members of the opposite sex! But I don’t really think a bar is a place to look for a friend.

  • Hmm. As a recent grad in anthropology I find your friends plight interesting. I have always said it’hard to be platonic friends with the opposite sex because one is always attracted to the other, but your friend makes me question that perhaps that is a uniquely american issue due to how obsessed with love and sex we are. We’re too busy fantasizing about what this conversation could lead to in order to stop and actually pay attention to the content. Maybe if this san diego woman had she would have realized Gunther wasn’t looking to make bicultural babies and just wanted a good conversation.

  • I feel like I have to defend this fellow European. I believe that, had I met Gunther in this bar, I would not have automatically assumed that he was interested in a romantic relationship. In fact, the default assumption that when a guy talks to a girl, it means that he wants sex from her baffles me. Even in context, in a bar and with long conversations and all the rest, there is something missing to come to that sort of conclusion. In my experience, when a guy is interested in a girl, it is (sometimes painfully) obvious. There is a difference between flirting and talking after all, and even accounting for the San Diego/Germany cultural gap, confusing one for the other seems really weird. Except if you over-romanticize foreigners and think they will not try to kiss a girl before she allows them ? Believe me, it is not the case. However, the third date rule could confuse them. (I do not know where it comes from but it seems really arbitrary to me)
    I think Jennifer is right on the chapter of friend-making, in any way, scouting bars is not the way to go.

  • If they didn’t kiss, then she really had no reason to be mad. Then again, I wasn’t there and don’t know what all they talked about and how the conversations went. It could’ve seemed like dating to her, and he could’ve been more direct. It seems like a gap in communication from both sides!

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