Colin Berry makes the case for men to drop the surface-level chatter and have real conversations instead.
It was a few weeks ago, at a backyard BBQ, with folks standing around with plates of pasta and cold beers in cups, that I ran into Ian. He’s the spouse of one of my wife’s friends, and I hadn’t talked to him for more than a year.
“Hey, great to see you,” he said, when we met. “How’s it going?”
“Good and bad,” I said, which was true. “How about you?”
For the next half hour, it was the last real thing either of us said to each other. The rest of the time Ian did the talking and I just nodded, saying “mmm-hmm” or “Wow!” or “Really?” and taking bigger and bigger bites of my noodles. As I chewed, Ian told me in detail about his work, his health insurance, the bedroom in his house he’s converting to an office, his car, his recent trip to Vegas, and his efforts to track down one of his high school buddies, which, from his description of it, seemed to be going well. At 30 minutes I had to bail; had I stuck it out, Ian likely would have covered his workouts, his iPhone apps, and his latest purchases on eBay.
In other words, the two of us—or Ian, at least—had a typical male conversation.
I don’t begrudge him. It’s not Ian’s fault most men prefer to skim the surface instead of plunging into real dialogue. We were taught it by our dads, who learned it from their dads, all the way back to Cro-Mags, probably, convinced we’re connecting when we’re actually doing nothing of the sort. Sports stats, business data, movie trivia, politics, tech talk, home improvement tips, the Exact Name of That Nick Drake Song From His First Album—it’s a way to talk in detail without actually saying anything. For a certain man, it’s the only way he can feel engaged, and he’s perfectly willing to burrow with another man into this comfortable, data-filled thicket, blissfully free from any depth or emotion.
But it isn’t the only way to converse, and when I encounter it these days, I want to stab my eyes out with a plastic fork.
Instead, I propose this: Let’s talk about actual stuff, guys. Let’s get real. No more surface-level BS. No more missing a chance to authentically connect with another man.
Getting real in conversation allows me the chance to genuinely learn what’s going on for the man (and to offer him support when I do), as well as for him to hear my truth about what’s happening for me (and to give me support around it when he does). It’s an opportunity for in-depth connection between men, not a pissing contest over who knows more about some topic or who’s got the coolest stuff.
I’ve seen firsthand how heartfelt connection can be the glue that bonds men together. In my men’s group, our around-the-circle check-in—the first thing we do when we meet—is an incredibly uncommon moment in my life: the chance to hear, from the source, exactly where each person in the room is, emotionally and physically. It’s not a time to fix him or give him advice, but simply to be present with him in his truth. That’s it. It’s powerful and rare and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. And as I go about my life, more and more I crave this kind of authentic interaction with other men.
Let me give you an example. I met my friend Josh for Indian food the other night. I know Josh and his new wife are going through some tough times lately, and within a minute or two of sitting down, I asked him about it. Josh was honest—his emotions were fearful and hopeful—and he offered some details. They’re trying a new therapist, he said; things feel like they’re unraveling, but he also has a hunch it’s getting them somewhere. He explained that he’d had some insights about his mom and about his first wife. Between bites of dal, Josh talked about his experience and I supported him with what I knew about my own marriage. It wasn’t super complicated, but it was real. We genuinely connected, and by the time the check came, we could both feel our friendship deepening.
Did we dip into trivial matters? Hell, yes. Personal finances, his job, his daughter’s choice of colleges, a music video we both knew from the 1990’s—we’re guys, after all. But each time we came back to the heartfelt stuff, the stuff that lay at the center of ourselves, the real stuff. Two men, emotionally present for each other, who actually care about what’s happening in each other’s lives.
Conversing like this isn’t easy—not at first. The other man may not be comfortable “going there,” and he shouldn’t be judged for it. (That may have been the case with Ian.) The first man’s ‘getting real’—telling some truth about himself he wouldn’t normally reveal in another conversation—might give the first man permission to do the same. I suggest giving it a try. Or not; he might not be in the mood to go there. It’s his choice.
The key is listening, a skill the world is in desperate need of these days. If both parties do it 80 percent of the time, it’s more likely they’ll discover things that really matter about each other. (I know that math is wrong, but you get the idea.)
All of which comes back to my non-conversation with Ian. I definitely listened—and yet maybe I should have spoken up. Why didn’t I take a risk with him? Instead of standing there, chewing my food, why didn’t I reveal something deeper to him that might have given us an opportunity to genuinely connect? In my case, other old patterns were at work: my people-pleaser, my don’t-rock-the-boat guy, my tendency to let others’ needs outweigh my own. As a man, I have my own issues. But I am evolving, and the next time I meet Ian or a man like him at a BBQ, I’m going to take a risk—and the payoff might be a singular and powerful connection between two conversing men.
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