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Man talk…

Essay | 18 minute read
If men are apparently conditioned to suppress their emotions from the playground onwards, where does this leave friendship between them? A writer meditates on the silence among men

I’ve been struggling this year with a sense of loneliness. It is not a feeling I completely understand. There was a particular incident with someone in August where it wasn’t clear whether we were still friends. It’s still painful to talk about it, and I’d rather not discuss. So now I carry loneliness around with me in silence, with the dull percussion of a headache.

I spoke to Will about it.

‘I’m haemorrhaging friends,’ I said.

We were sitting on a park bench in late summer in central London, watching two guys in their twenties play tennis. They were wearing expensive branded kit, and groaned each time one of their premium velocity rockets slunk an inch off course.

‘Who are you?’

‘Very funny.’

As we walked back to the library I decided that my sadness was compounded by my inability to describe it in granular detail. I challenged Will to note how he was feeling. I wanted him to explain it in more complex language than ‘I’m feeling sad’, or ‘I’m happy today.’ It is easier to explain complicated rational ideas than it is to articulate emotion.

‘How are you feeling?’

‘A bit depressed,’ he said.

‘You see,’ I said. ‘We simply lack the vocabulary to express ourselves. There is a communicative crisis among men.’

I shouted this at him, windmilling my arms as he swept back into the building. But you couldn’t hear my words above the rushing wind and strangers battering into me as they passed.

My thoughts on friendship might as well be fiction. They change in time, depend on their context, and are embedded in power. But what good is this? What are we to do if there is no way to properly communicate as a man, if we simply lack the words?

I consulted a psychoanalyst. I wanted to find out whether my struggling to cope with the loss of my friendships was something to do with being male. I read about the uselessness of men in The Guardian opinion section pretty much every day so it’s my secret hunch.

‘I’m writing about emotional inarticulacy among men,’ I said.

‘You know I probably won’t help you,’ she replied.

I stared out of the window. The previous month I had complained of being bored, and several moments later a squirrel had catapulted itself head-first into the window. ‘Well, you said you wanted something to happen,’ she had said. Now every time I searched the undergrowth my pulse increased.

I think she then said: ‘You use information you’ve read in books to hide your emotion.’

I continued on the same tip: that men had less practice at articulating themselves like this. That we are acculturated to be repressed and unemotional from the playground on. That because we lack the words, large parts of our emotional lives are unavailable to us.

Though by talking in this way I was proving her point.

Walking up the street home after the session, I knew that this theory, this essay, could well be fantasy, a way of rationalising and dampening the feeling of my own sadness. But had I really, truly had an emotionally open chat with a male friend, any friend? To express my sense of loss? Where people could say what they actually felt without making a joke, or needing to get drunk, or drowning the interaction in aggression, or something else?

Photo by Joel Bengs/Unsplash

When I got home I picked up Adam Phillips’s book, Winnicott, on the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Phillips writes: ‘In one of his finest papers, “The Capacity to be Alone” (1958), Winnicott would suggest that the capacity to be alone depended on, and began with, the child’s experience of being alone in the presence of his mother. Because the mother is there, but undemanding (as an auxiliary ego), she can be absent from the child’s mind as a total preoccupation; he is safe enough to lose himself.’

Winnicott, I read, dealt with his mother’s depression by writing creatively in his early life, because he had missed out in the ‘formative experience in a child’s life’. A child with a seriously depressed mother, Winnicott wrote, could feel ‘infinitely dropped’. Later, Winnicott studied part of the Natural Sciences Tripos at Cambridge, where he was struck by the fact that ‘every effort was made to eliminate variables such as emotions’ from the scientific inquiry he studied. But how do we put the emotion back into the way we communicate without destroying reason?

I am alone for most of the evening. Before a seminar the following day, I have to read about the sociologist Anthony Giddens. I pour a glass of wine and start to comb through his book, The Consequences of Modernity. Drawing on Winnicott’s work, Giddens writes in his treatise on the alienating effect of modernity, about the building of trust in modern societies. ‘A feeling of the reliability of others is predicated on the recognition that the absence of the mother does not represent a withdrawal of love,’ he says.

When I turn on the television these days and I see the dead black eyes and plastic skin of Jacob Rees-Mogg, I wonder if you could extrapolate such suggested private traumas to an entire society, should you want to. I like the sound of real opportunity for Britain. I like to ignore economic insecurity, civic distrust, a grossly unjust financial system and patriarchy, a shattered and solipsistic public sphere because I feel scared and let down by them. Yet here we stand alone upon the ice, gasping at the fissure slowing zigzagging across its bright white surface towards us.

Jesus, I think. This has escalated quickly.

That night I can’t get much rest. Yet at some point I cast myself off in the soft haze of the streetlight, and my head penetrates the clouds where I gladly dream of sleep.

I often turn to fiction for answers. If I look across my bookshelves, at the novels I have read in recent years, I struggle to remember them but I also fail to recall meaningful male on male relationships in the same way as, say, Ferrante writes about Elena and Lila in her series of Neapolitan novels.

There is plenty of nineteenth-century literature on love, reams of modern literature on the psyche, and quite a lot of postmodern literature on – I’m struggling to express what postmodern writing is about (what about you?) – yet my mind has somehow edited out most of the emotional interaction between men. I can only think of the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick. I re-read a passage that describes their budding friendship as one of latent, withheld intimacy.

‘Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife. The counterpane was of patchwork, full of odd little parti-coloured squares and triangles; and this arm of his tattooed all over with an interminable Cretan labyrinth…’

Herman Melville writes of Queequeg with infatuation, I think.

Illustration of Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ (Getty Images)

And then I write the following paragraph: ‘Ishmael is less a cypher for Melville’s emotionality than a distanced anthropology, rendered in a colonial vocabulary of savagery and Otherness held in tension with Ishmael’s evident want.’

I want to delete it. It doesn’t quite express how I feel. The truth is, like Melville, I love Queequeg too. I want to wrap him in my arms. I want to jump in that bed. I want to bounce on it.

Later that evening, I sit in a friend’s kitchen, eating the remains of a lamb skewer, sucking its delicious fat from my fingers and stressing about this essay.

‘There are no examples of male friendship in literature,’ I tell Steve, definitively. ‘It fits with the essay I’m writing.’

‘There are loads of examples,’ he says.

We are drinking red wine. I smack my lips free of alcohol, and as I draft the glass down in short gasps, I have the familiar feeling of wanting to be somewhere else, but never quite knowing where.

‘Let me Google it,’ says Steve, his thumbs blurring.

‘Not proper friendship,’ I say. ‘Not like Ferrante.’

‘What about the Bible?’

‘They’re two-dimensional characters.’

He continues looking through his phone.

‘Othello and Iago.’

‘That’s more about power.’

Othello (Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

‘Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte?’

‘Hmm,’ I said, tipping my glass back. ‘Maybe. What about heterosexual characters?’

‘Frodo and Bilbo Baggins?’ 

When I think later, in an interrupted dream, about my own friends, I remember a time when I was twelve, walking into a classroom. It’s painful and vague to discuss it in this way, but I don’t know how else to do so. The previous evening, I had been told that I was going to be leaving my school (my parents were going through some financial difficulties). I’m going to say that the next morning I walked through dust bobbing like plankton in the sunlight, opened the wooden top of my desk and carefully pulled out my piles of neatly written exercise books, the textbooks my mother and I had carefully covered with transparent plastic (a task I used to take much satisfaction in doing neatly, scoring the plastic with scissors and placing the book flat to remove bubbles) and piling them into a rucksack. One of my former teachers came into the room and found me and she started crying. I used to make excuses to hang out with her when I was younger and would help her prepare the afternoon’s lessons, tidying up the room and distributing and cutting coloured bits of card. Just before I left, she hugged me, and I sank into her flesh, my ear against her chest. I panicked, and didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t embarrassed. But I pretended I was. ‘You won’t tell the other boys about this, Miss, will you?’ It sounded like the sweet kind of thing little boys say. She laughed because she was beautiful.

But the truth was, I didn’t feel anything. I’m a pretty good liar.

After that day, I remember losing all my friends overnight. I didn’t contact them, since there didn’t seem to be much point – they’d left me behind like a forgotten suitcase. And so, when I got my place at university some years later, I dropped all my friends from secondary school and tried to make new ones. It felt like sweet justice, revenge on a world that didn’t know it had done me wrong in the first place. It’s a pattern I fear I will repeat forever, a loom I weave diligently just so I can smash it, and I take such sweet delight in the exquisite tears and broken fragments, as I drop them, satisfied, to the floor.

That’s the story I’m telling myself, anyway.  It’s the story I always tell. Maybe I should feel ashamed.

Earlier this month, I read How Should a Person Be? by the Canadian author Sheila Heti. ‘There’s no ideal model for how my mind should be,’ she says. ‘For the men, it’s pretty clear. That’s the reason you see them trying to talk themselves up all the time. I laugh when they won’t say what they mean so the academies will study them forever.’

In recent years I have retreated into academic language, where my choices are concealed behind specificity and complexity and my voice fades away. It’s neater, less exposing, and a little more fair.

I send a few emails. I explain that I am writing an article about ‘every day discourse and male intimacy’ – the relationship between the day-to-day words we use, different genres of language, and male emotional connection. As I do so, my language shifts from this solipsistic mode that frames my concerns, my problems (and I’m really sorry that I have to do this, I don’t usually) into the neutralised unemotional discourses of academic writing.

In an informal telephone interview I am told there is partial evidence to suggest gendered divisions in communication are changing. In an article in the academic journal, Psychology on Men and Masculinity, academics interviewed older, obese men about their bodies. The co-authors write:

‘Traditionally, body image has been gendered as a feminised concern; men have simply ignored their embodied status or regarded their bodies as machines or tools for getting work done.’

The authors noted that against their predictions, the men in question were forthcoming about how they looked. ‘Apart from photographs, participants also frequently referenced mirrored reflections of themselves in their body talk,’ they say. This sentence enters my brain and sits there, but one passage in particular interests me. One of the men is described as saying the following and I underline it twice:

‘I hate it, hate it with a vengeance and I will not lie, I look in the mirror everyday, have done for years and seen me get, obviously we’ve gone from that … to that…’

This moves me in a way other writing cannot. It seems to demonstrate, clearly, how there are certain spaces in language that men can occupy, and certain spaces that they cannot. The boundaries between these spaces are melting as our societies evolve. Yet if gender is partly a performance, as some scholars testify, there is a pen in which we can play, an unspoken suggestion of what we should become. But what happens if we climb out? Is a vulnerable man still a man?

Me:  I’m hoping to write a piece investigating the trope/stereotype that men are less emotionally articulate than women, and though this will be a non-academic piece, and will draw on personal experience, I will situate this discursively if at all possible. I was particularly interested in inarticulacy around the need for male/male friendship. I know you have published widely on this and related areas, and was wondering whether you might have the time to answer some brief questions?

Dariusz Galasinski, Professor of Discourse and Cultural Studies at the University of Wolverhampton: Yes, I am happy to answer your questions.

Me: Thank you Dariusz, I really appreciate it.

DG: Here are my responses. I feel you might not like them, I’m afraid.

Q. Do you think that the gendered stereotype that men are emotionally inarticulate is outdated, or still has uses in terms of understanding different ways of communicating between the sexes? 

DG: Is the stereotype outdated? I think my point would be that the stereotype has always been ‘outdated’. I don’t think that men have ever been emotionally inarticulate – at least there is no evidence for that. Rather, the social condition has/had allowed them to articulate their emotionality or not. That has been underpinned by literature or, later, other forms of narrative – from the Western to the action movie.

Q. Do you think discrete conceptions of male identity and emotional articulacy are useful at problematising male as opposed to female communication, or do you think we need a much more complex way of understanding the relationship between men, identity, communication, and emotional expression, especially in mainstream forums?

DG: I’m afraid I reject the premise of your question. I don’t think there is ‘male articulation’. Men are not a homogenous group of people that express emotions in a ‘male way’. Having said this, of course, men are socialised into a particular way of intimacy or, shall we call it, ‘emotion talk’. But men negotiate it, just as we all negotiate what society wants from us. So, finally, I don’t think it’s possible to talk about ‘intimacy’. Intimacy is here and now.

Q. Do you think there is enough research into these topics, and if not, why do you think that is? Is it easier/more difficult to make the case for such research in the light of the changing visibility of feminist discourse in the public sphere?

DG: There is much research that shows that there are no male or female ways of communication. I tend to give the following example. Research by Marjorie Goodwin (if memory serves) investigated communication in female school gangs. It turned out that there were no differences between them and male gangs. That in turn suggests that differences in how we communicate have a different source than gender (let alone biological sex). One such source could be power. In other words, women in business do not speak ‘like men’. They speak like people in power. But because it is more often than not men who are in power, we started associating their ways of speaking with gender.

Is there enough research? It really depends what you mean. There is huge psychological research on emotions and emotionality. On the other hand, there is much less in discourse analysis. When I was interested in how men in depression talked, I found only four articles based on narratives of such men. So, the answer to your question [is] too complex to offer an answer.

I’d say that masculinity studies have now entered the mainstream, though I think with some topics more than in others. Suicide for example is a topic in which men are definitely the mainstream research. When I studied emotions or depression, they were not. And I was explicitly told that.

Q. Do you think, given the problems we’ve seen with the male abuse of power in the public sphere in recent times, along with high suicide rates among young men, that there is a crisis around the articulation of emotion among men that is especially unique?

DG: No. I don’t think ‘male articulation of emotions’ (see my earlier comments) is responsible for all that. The issue, in my view, is an earlier level, so to say. And it’s way more complex. If I were to offer a one-line suggestion – my view about suicide is that it is ‘being men’ which is at issue. And by that I understand socialisation into a dominant model of masculinity. Men in depression want to be ‘real men’, as defined by the model, and their inability to achieve that is a source of distress and suffering. Much research into suicide, including mine, would suggest that the bottom line often is the disequilibrium in living dominant masculinity.

We have to leave each other soon. So I’ll just finish, quickly, with another article I found. It’s not so obvious, though if you know how you’ll find it tucked away in an academic database. It’s by the scholar E. Anthony Rotundo writing in the Journal of Social History in 1989 and drawing heavily on the work of Professor Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. Around the time Melville wrote Moby Dick, men’s views on friendship were different and similar to today in several important ways. While men had romantic, heterosexual relationships with other men (unlike today), the path of their friendships shadowed what we see now. In early life, for example, they had a great number of acquaintances where they discussed countless things: daily events, careers, college life, but crucially, and with the greatest fervour, they talked about women. Committed, loving ties were socially acceptable between men. But as they grew older, these men had families and marriages, and their male friendships withered.

Smith-Rosenberg proposed we view ‘sexual and emotional impulses as part of a continuum or spectrum of affect gradations strongly affected by cultural norms and arrangements. At one end of the continuum,’ she wrote, ‘lies committed heterosexuality, at the other uncompromising homosexuality.’ Between them lies a wide spectrum of emotions and sexual feelings. Smith-Rosenberg asserted that some cultures allow a person a ‘great deal of freedom across this spectrum,’ and she suggested that nineteenth-century America was one such culture.

When young men turned to other men, they needed more than a comrade. They needed someone to fill the emotional space vacated by their home and family. But as men grew older, competition in the workplace grew, and their relationships became harder: more self-interested, and calculated. They began to pour scorn on their younger selves, since tenderness was at odds with the ‘emotional austerity’ expected of a grown man. Once men got married, their male friendships ebbed in intensity.

Adult male identity, so detached and independent contrasted with that of adult females, which was built on interdependence and connection. Women were linked by ‘supportive networks’ and by ‘female rituals that accompanied virtually every important event in a woman’s life’.

You can see, here, writes Rotundo, how the friendships of youth may have helped cohere relationships in the harsh marketplace where middle-class men spent their days. Over time, says the author, a notable distinction appeared among the upper and middle classes. It split men into two camps – on one side, the hearty, vigorous, active man, and on the other, the gentle, reflective, neurasthenic one. The former group was viewed positively, and the latter was seen as unmanly and undesirable.

I have no polished conclusion. Like you – it’s what unites us, you and I – I have no solution. I’d like to pass you off with a cliché, a simple lie, or simply refer you to the black and whiteness of the research. I could say we tell ourselves stories to make sense of things, but this would be cheating you. I’m lonely and losing friends because I’m a man and despite it, but it’s much more complicated and maybe beyond the capacities of text. But I say this with genuine love: if you figure it out, or otherwise, would you message me, please? Would you take the time to tweet?

Last weekend, the boiler in my flat suffered a chronic then fatal rupture. I spent most of the night lying dead awake, before getting up early for the train ride to work. I sponged myself off in the bath, made the bed, tucking in the sheet and pulling back the duvet and giving the toy dog a good spot on the pillow. As I shivered in the dark, naked, wet by the sink, I knew at some point I would get to put my clothes back on and the cold would stop. There was no one else around. I’d convinced myself I was glad to be here, and for a moment, I felt normal, because I didn’t need anybody else at all.