What’s really going on when guys torment each other in the name of friendship?
I’m on the way to a Karate seminar with four male dojo colleagues, when we stop off at a huge superstore to pick up snacks and use the restrooms. A few minutes later, we’re all back in the car except Dean.
A minute later we spot him, unable to find the car. The guys think this is outstanding entertainment; they watch him wander up and down the rows of cars and just laugh.
I can’t believe they’re not helping him—it’s bitterly cold outside.
One of the men explains: He clearly needs to develop his orientation skills if he wants to join the Marines, so we’re helping him practice. The others laugh even louder at this.
He eventually finds us; the others rib him mercilessly while he scowls out the window. A minute or so later, he seems fine again and it’s all apparently forgotten.
I know joking around is what these guys do with each other; but I’m not certain what I’ve just seen. Dean is quite a bit younger than the rest of us, with a subtle aura of vulnerability. He just doesn’t seem to be enjoying being the object of banter in the same way the others do, and I wonder how he’s feeling.
Have I just witnessed these kind and caring men bullying?
After that day, I ask the three of them separately what the incident was about. They all make exactly the same four points, even using more or less the same words:
Firstly, this is just what happens in small, tight-knit groups of men. It’s all good fun, and no one takes offence. They all talk with relish about the mean things they and their friends do to each other.
One says: I’d be worried if my friends stopped being horrible to me!
Secondly, it’s their way of supporting him, given that he’s planning to join the Marines. Military people are supposed to be able to find their way from Point A to Point B—if they can’t it’s dangerous. One guy (ex-Navy) says: Anyway, what we do is nothing compared with what he’s going to get in the Marines. We’re helping him to prepare for that.
Thirdly, it’s also their way of curing his tendency to do stupid things. All three of them use this exact expression, and also say: We’re teaching him not to do them. He’s getting a lot better now. These “stupid things” seem to be essentially naïve, insensitive social gaffes.
Finally, if someone seemed to be genuinely upset by their teasing, they would stop.
But they’re confident that they don’t push Dean to this point. I can see they’re protective and fond of him.
These conversations have been fascinating. But the most important feedback has to come from Dean himself. Only he can verify the others’ view that he enjoys the teasing—and I’m certain he won’t. I’m certain he’ll open up about how miserable their behavior makes him, and how difficult it is to be a man in this sense.
In fact, Dean’s perspective is quite different.
Unlike the other three, who seem to truly enjoy being teased by their friends, he doesn’t especially like it.
But having once been a boy and young man who didn’t “get” social norms and found life a constant struggle, he is genuinely appreciative of the help other men have given him to learn the “rules” and take his place in this complex world.
Dean explains that as a child, he was a “naïve” and “good” kind of boy—and socially excluded and bullied. He started Karate aged 14, wanting to become a stronger version of myself—physically and mentally.
Karate has certainly transformed him; but this has been through his interactions with other men, perhaps more than through the art itself.
As an adolescent and young man, Dean had low self-esteem and a hot temper; and couldn’t cope with even the slightest insult or attack. But being teased by the Karate guys and other men—and learning to tease them in return—is like verbal playfighting. He compares it to the way he’s seen wild animals socialize each other on the Discovery Channel.
It’s taught him to understand his own and others’ boundaries, keep his center while under stress—and consciously choose an appropriate response to any given situation.
He explains that: Boys usually start off quite sensitive. At a certain age they can’t control their emotions. From being a boy to being a man is learning how to control your emotions, and not be controlled by them. Reacting emotionally without thinking things through is selfish—it’s all about you. In everyday life you can’t afford to take things personally, or let your emotions run you.
Dean sees two different types of teasing. One is abusive; but the other is a kind of structured “training”.
He’s been on the receiving end of plenty of abusive teasing in his life; and found it harmful. But the Karate guys’ teasing is of the “structured training” variety. He’s certainly not always enjoyed it; but it’s not abusive. The incident in the car park was over and done with at the time, and he’s surprised I’m still thinking about it.
It’s all about the teaser carefully judging how much the teasee can take, and building up the intensity over time. Dean links it directly to how martial arts are taught. You don’t destroy a beginner; but you do carefully build up with them, as they improve and become able to take more.
He talks of having been through a “personal evolution” and is thankful to have toughened up and transcended the extreme vulnerability of his childhood.
Like many martial artists, Dean is preoccupied with the principle of yin/yang and the quest for balance.
He wants to achieve a mature, even, confident persona—not too sensitive and vulnerable; but also not too aggressive or heartless.
He says of teasing: I only do it to people who do it back. But if someone’s a bit more passive or quiet I wouldn’t do it. I’d be worried about hurting them. I think most men are the same. He is mirroring what the other men said.
I ask Dean what he hopes to get out of military experience. He says: I’ll be stronger mentally and physically. More capable and confident.
Before this conversation, I could only see two binary options. Either Dean was genuinely enjoying the teasing as the other guys thought; or it was psychologically damaging him. In fact the truth is something else altogether. He doesn’t particularly like it; but he values it nonetheless.
I can’t help but worry about Dean joining the military, given his innate vulnerability.
I can only sincerely hope that it will make him the better, stronger man he dreams of being. Because I can see the path he’s following now, and why he’s doing it. He believes he’s a far better, stronger and happier person for his relationships with these guys—and wants to take it to a new level. Structured training.
It’s so wrong that we live in a world where Dean was bullied as a youngster; and that’s something the Good Men Project would like to change. But it is the world he lives in. Like all of us he is navigating his way through it as best as he can; and is appreciative of support from those who he feels are on his side, and can help him unlock some of its mysteries.
Also by Kai Morgan
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