In a new series, Masculinity &: I look at Masculinity and men’s relationships with everything from food to fashion, sport to sickness…
Masculinity &: Friendship
Blokes are strange creatures. And the relationships they have with each other can be even more odd.
On the surface male friendship seems fairly straightforward. Mates, the lads, the boys, banter! We pride ourselves on being better friends than girls; more straightforward. There is less bitchiness, less two faced fake compliments and jealousy, supposedly. But I’m not so sure everything is quite as rosy as we think in the garden of male friendship.
We are supposedly living in the age of the new man. The metrosexual male. A time when men are at most in touch with their feelings and less afraid to show emotion, weakness and affection for each other. We have seen the rise of the “bromance” and I think it’s an extremely positive thing. Chandler and Joey. JD and Turk. Alonso and Gerrard. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Bert and Ernie.
However, recent research in the UK found that 2.5 million men have “no close friends” and although perhaps behaviour is changing amongst the younger generation since the 80s research has suggested that close relationships “don’t come as easily to men” and “men’s friendships are more often based on mutual activities like sports and work rather than what’s happening to them psychologically. Women are taught to draw one another out; men are not.”
“Consciously or otherwise, many men believe that talking about personal matters with other men is not manly. The result is often less intimate, more casual friendships between men, making the connections more tenuous and harder to sustain.”
Personally I am lucky that is not an experience that I can relate to. I have some extremely close friends. There is a core group of us from school who have known each other for 20 years now and are all as equally close. In addition I have three or four other very close friends that I have acquired since University. As a group we have seen each other go through a lot; from the loss of parents, to marriage, breakups and divorce. Adultery, both committing it and being the victim of it; depression, illness, success and failure. I feel like I am one of the lucky ones where bromance very much exists amongst my group of friends. We genuinely care deeply for each other, we have seen each other breakdown and cry, we’ve been best men for each other, we’ve supported each other and more than anything we’ve laughed together.
But I’m not convinced that all male friendships as quite so healthy. I was talking to one of my good friends recently about one of his group chats on What’s App. Having met through slightly convoluted circumstances we have ended up great mates but outside of the two of us our circles of friends are pretty distinct. He was describing the “banter” that goes on within this group chat and how it was “absolute vicious” at times. Casual racism, personal attacks and unrelenting nastiness, all in the name of “banter.” But it’s alright, everyone knows it’s just banter, they don’t take themselves too seriously, no one’s going to be a girl about it. In fact he described how it seems far from “alright.” It has led to members of the group leaving, then becoming ostracised, fallings out, people accused of taking it too far and then others that they are taking it too seriously. He said you can never really tell how someone has taken the bit of “banter” just directed at them. The overriding feeling he seemed to have was that it was “tiring.” It certainly doesn’t sound like much fun to me.
I think one of the key problems with this sort of male environment is that quite often we don’t know how men take things. We aren’t encouraged to show our true feelings, or at least we don’t feel comfortable doing so. A lot of good work is being done to change that and I think we are making progress but for many men and among many male friends there is still a feeling of not wanting to appear weak or that something has got to you.
I don’t fear too much for my mate, he genuinely seems to have pretty thick skin and is one of the few individuals who really doesn’t care what people think of them, but what is there to say that I’m not falling into the same trap and assuming he is alright all the time? Men’s skins aren’t always as thick as we think.
Obviously a lot of this comes down to balance and how things are perceived. Me and my mates engage in plenty of piss taking and jokes aimed at each other but I think there is always an overriding or underlying warmth to the exchanges and I’m confident that we all know what subjects to avoid and when perhaps something has gone too far. The last thing we want is for one of our friends to feel hurt, insecure, insignificant or humiliated. We care about each other.
The enjoyment of seeing a supposed friend humiliated is simply a concept I don’t understand. Perhaps it is not an exclusively male phenomenon but it seems to be accepted more in plain sight by men. Take for example the “stag do.” An event which has boomed in the last ten years, largely, like a lot of things, down to a lucrative industry being generated around it. But the stories you hear of friends tying their stag to lamp posts; forcing them to sleep with prostitutes; getting them so drunk they lose just about every bodily function; all seems a bit ridiculous to me. Who benefits? Seemingly only the “friends” who must receive some sort of cheap thrill from humiliating someone they are supposed to care about.
Again, I’m not some no mark kill joy, me and my mates have got into some right states together before but we always look after each other. And on the stags I’ve been involved in there have been plenty of instances of funny t-shirts, masks and the odd forfeit. Once one of my friends, an ardent Liverpool fan was forced to wear a Rooney Utd shirt on his stag do; albeit for a total of about 20 minutes and which he took off when we went into a club.
Instead of horrible behaviour and ritual humiliation on the stag dos I’ve been involved in we wanted to celebrate our friend’s impending marriage and spend some rare, quality time together.
However, to end on a positive note I do think it is always easy to think that things are worse now than they have ever been. I do think that our current culture of “banter” and the strange industry that has developed around it doesn’t help and nor does the detached obscure vitriol cultivated through social media and the “ease” in which people can bully others without having to look them in the eye. But equally I do believe we are entering a time where the awareness of masculine emotion an fragility is increasingly and becoming more important. We should not necessarily look back on the “good old days” as if it was a better time, alright we might not have the “banter boys” and crass bullying of social media but it was also a time where “men were men” and we were positively encouraged to suppress our feelings, fears and failures. It was a time of abuse, mental and physical and when health was not at the forefront of our considerations.
Despite the positive steps there are still plenty of signs that things are not easy for men. Misogynists, racists and bullies are still rising to the top; bullying and mockery appears our default behaviour towards other men (not to mention women) Suicide kills more of us than anything else; an unbelievable fact and what that needs to change. Some fantastic work is being done by various charities (CALM is one I am particularly close to) and plenty of individuals but much much more must be done to help men be more at ease, not only with each other, but with themselves. And when it comes to friendship, believe me, having genuine, close and emotionally supportive ones is a lot more rewarding.