‘How do women connect so easily, and why is it so difficult for us guys?’
This was originally published on Role/Reboot.
By Charles Rodgers
Have you ever witnessed this scene? Two women meet for the first time. A few minutes later, they’re engrossed in conversation, effortlessly discussing the intimate details of their lives. By the end, they’ve often formed a meaningful bond.
A little later, their male partners join them. They stand around chatting with each other, having what appears to be a more superficial conversation. Their talk is more likely about sports or a common interest, and they’re unlikely to be sharing anything emotionally equivalent to their female peers. The contrast is often stark and ultimately very disappointing. As a man, this strikes me as a big disadvantage for my gender. How do women connect so easily, and why is it so difficult for us guys? Sure, it’s a stereotype, but it’s one that may have a lot of truth to it.
The conversations on Role/Reboot about changing gender roles have made me think about this difference in how men and women connect with one other and relate emotionally. Much of the conversation about changing gender roles revolves around men and women in the workplace and the home. The theme is often that women are taking on what used to be considered male roles and men are increasingly assuming what used to be female roles, such as being the primary caregiver for children. On its face, these changes seem predictable given the shifts in educational attainment that favor women and changing labor force dynamics.
However, as a man who is now north of 60, I question whether certain types of changes are happening fast enough. Given the demographic changes taking place in larger society, might we expect a corresponding change to be reflected in the emotional dynamics of male relationships, such as in men’s ability to establish more satisfying friendships and social relations? For example, as men are more likely to be in nurturing relationships with their children, will it be easier for men to turn to a male in a similar circumstance for the “effortless” friendship women in the same roles seem to share? As men “give up” some of the economic privileges and roles associated with the traditional male, will they gain some of the ease and rewards of better emotional relationships with other men?
Male relationships can be complicated. My own history shows both the challenges and the opportunities inherent in male relationships. I myself had a rather poor relationship with my father, who was more or less emotionally crippled. Let’s just say he didn’t do a good job of imparting male bonding skills. I muddled through and managed to have some good relationships with other guys, starting in high school. The high water mark was the two years I spent in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso, West Africa. It was a very isolated, very underdeveloped country and I was living in small town near several other male volunteers. One of the treasures of this experience was the friendships I built with many of the other volunteers. I’m still good friends with many of these men 40 years later.
But I’m not sure this is at all typical. Clearly these were unusual circumstances. The nature of our assignment meant at times we all felt isolated, homesick, and lonely. This facilitated a certain closeness and mutual dependence that otherwise might not have developed. We were young and we were more likely to turn to each other for support and friendship.
As an adult I’ve certainly acquired new male friends, so I’m certain it can be done. The challenge is that it has always seemed to be more difficult than it should be. Even when I meet someone with whom I share the same interests and values, there are times when an invisible barrier short circuits the process of converting an acquaintance into something more complex. I can’t say that I’ve developed any particular insights into this. You all know the familiar refrain: men are too competitive, men are not hard wired to need friendships, men never develop friendship skill sets due to their socialization, etc. It just seems that we end up missing something that women have an easier time capturing.
I’m optimistic that this maelstrom of societal and gender role change may end up producing an emotional win-win for men and women. At least that’s what I hope. I’d love to hear some of the experiences from the other side of the generational divide, from those men who are playing new roles in uncharted territory.
Charles Rodgers is President of New Community Fund, father of two daughters, and is involved in a variety of political and cultural organizations.