I was sipping a long black in a local coffee house researching this article when the conversation of three, quite good-looking guys in their late twenties caught my attention. Listening to them talk was like hearing a foreign tongue.
Why are men so weird when socialising with other men?
No wonder most guys don’t really have friends. Instead, we circle round each other warily, talking about generic, depersonalised topics with casual brutality, dick in hand, perfecting the art of the humble brag.
Not that it is without a sense of brotherhood, but what it does lack is an open aura of connection. It has always been like this: men socialise “side-by-side” not “face-to-face” and intimacy is demonstrated by doing stuff together. I see this in my husband (who socialises almost exclusively in large groups with other gay men) but my friendship style skews female — one-to-one, with lots of intense emotional disclosure.
Here’s the thing, though — although my friendship style skews female, I don’t have all that many female friends. In fact, almost all my friends are straight men. It turns out I’ve made a whole social life out of what people are calling “bromosexual friendships” — the social phenomenon of straight men befriending gay men and vice versa — before I even knew it was a psychologically recognised thing.
But first things first. The bro-dude dynamic of group socialising is present, from what I’ve observed, when it’s just two guys hanging out. It’s a complicated dance, for sure — obliquely revelatory but also aggressively anti-vulnerable — and it’s captured beautifully in films like Et Tu Mama También (2001) — if we’re thinking about hormone-crazed teenage boys on the cusp of an early twenties’ existence — and 50/50 (2011) — when those in their late twenties first encounter concepts of mortality.
Only the bromosexual friendship, it seems, is equipped to break free of these rules of engagement.
There is something about the difference in sexual orientation which makes for a different sort of encounter. And it makes sense this is a relatively recent shift in the zeitgeist. In these more enlightened times, most straight men no longer see having a gay friend as a threat to their masculinity.
Good for them. And in their approach to friendship, I see a kindred spirit. In the same way most guys don’t really “do friendship” with women (because, one presumes, they think the endeavour biologically compromised by sexual desire), I don’t really have gay friends. It’s not that I didn’t want them — and Lord knows aspects of my life would have been easier if I had more of them — it’s just there’s always been a hint of sexual possibility which gets in the way of what I thought friendship is for.
Group-based socialising — gay or straight — can, if you’re not in the mood for it (and I invariably am not), feel a bit blustery and false. It can feel almost performative. There are certain phrases to say and certain topics to hit. They tend to be heavily transactional and can be quite hierarchical. From what I can tell, my husband’s social groups have frozen out more guys than my podiatrist has veruccas.
And it’s not just gay guys. Activity-based group friendships are heavily rules based too. There is a code of conduct and “drama” is not welcome.
I’m invited into these groups from time to time, usually for a riotous stag weekend. They’re quite fun — there is a definite appeal — but it reminded me of the alpha male dynamic one sees in corporate work settings up and down the land. Perhaps one of the reasons men are so comfortable in that environment is because it feels so familiar?
But as a vessel for intimacy, it is a sub-optimal design, which is why so many men find their social calendars full but are at a complete loss when it comes to selecting a best man.
Their friendships don’t operate at that deeper level of connection.
Is it friendship if you don’t know all that much about each other? Of course it is. But it puts men — who are far more likely than their female counterparts to socialise exclusively in group settings — in the danger zone, as they frequently discover they don’t really have anyone to turn to in times of crisis.
Viewed through that lens, it makes sense to me that I’m notching up a good number of requests to serve as best man and similar. It certainly doesn’t make much sense from all the other vantage points. I don’t have all that many friends, for one thing, and I wouldn’t consider myself particularly good at friendships generally. But I am very loyal to the friends I do have, offer them the warts and all version of me, and I would trust them with my life.
Aristotle thought friendship a key component of a life well-lived and he said there were three varieties of friend.
The first is a friendship of utility. This is a friendship of mutual convenience and heavily transactional, like a business acquaintance whose company you enjoy. But utility friends tend not to last: once the situation changes, so does the nature of the connection.
The second is a friendship based in pleasure. These are friends with whom you go clubbing, or with whom you play sports. The friendship is based on a shared enjoyment of a mutual interest. Whilst valuable, they fall away as and when a person’s tastes or preferences changes.
The third is a friendship which endures. These take time to build and oftentimes are fostered through the endurance of mutual hardship, or a significant life event. These friends usually share the same set of values, and agree on what constitutes a “good life”. It is a relationship which grows and flexes as the people in it change and mature.
The long-running American sitcom Friends (1994–2004) presented a very appealing image of friendship so close and all-involving it amounted to a surrogate family. As the series drew to a conclusion, the writers seemed to admit that these sorts of friendships are a moment in time.
They require a set of ongoing shared experiences, and as the characters started to pair off and have families themselves, the magic ingredient which kept them bonded to one another started to wear off.
We’ll never know if those friendships endured for a lifetime, although I hope they did. But you probably wouldn’t put money on it. It was an idealised version of friendship, out of sync with the reality that men’s social circles are shrinking. A (perhaps not surprisingly) large number of married men don’t have a single friend of their own, because they have let themselves become consumed by the friendship circle of their spouse.
It is a simple case of cause and effect: if we are socially passive, if we avoid emotional engagement, and if we preoccupy ourselves with other aspects of life (work and money, mainly), then the outcome is obvious.
Some men don’t mind that, and I can sort of see their point. If a lot of friendship is window-dressing — people with whom we do stuff so we don’t have to do it alone (the “activity-based friendships” which, by design, limit scope for intimacy) — what is the point of seeking out something more spiritually satisfying?
In a world which actively celebrates pruning our social lives and “ending” friendships which no longer serve a purpose, the concept of the forever friendship has fallen out of fashion. I think that is a terrible pity. Forever friends link us to our past, and help make the future that little bit less terrifying. Not one of life’s essentials, granted, but its rarity makes it all the more magnificent.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
You may also like these posts on The Good Men Project:
|White Fragility: Talking to White People About Racism||Escape the “Act Like a Man” Box||The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer||What We Talk About When We Talk About Men|
Photo credit: Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash