"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Henry David Thoreau, American Philosopher
My core group of friends and I go back about 20 years and, reasonably enough, we liked to think that we knew one another. Inside out. Recently, though, we discovered the awful truth…
We met at elementary school, grew up together, and shared a strong identity as part of the Asian community in our town. Eventually, we all made it from excitable adolescents to more mature young men. And, somehow, we managed to stay close – despite our various sporting allegiances!
And, until a few months ago, our conversation rarely strayed from the latest football scores and standard everyday “lad chat.”
That was despite the fact that over the decades, some of us moved away. Some got married and started families. Some of us set up our own businesses, too. But our conversations never evolved along with us.
Toxic Masculinity, No Friend to Men
We never addressed anything important that was going on in our lives. We certainly never touched on any real emotions. This all changed in the past year, when one of the group suffered a very painful time, one that he didn't feel able to share. Rather than opening up to us, he brushed his pain under the rug.
We all told him that we were there for him, and encouraged him to talk about how he was feeling. I’d only recently lost someone myself, and I thought that talking would make it easier for him. He, though, was determined to keep quiet and carry on. Alone.
This was a real eye-opener for the group. How could someone who we had shared so much of our lives with, not be able to talk to us when he needed us the most?
It was this that made us see the truth: that we had been conditioned as “guys” to not talk about our fears, pains or troubles. We quickly realized it was an approach that was not doing us any good. Which is exactly why we decided to address it.
We wanted to start discussing all those topics we’d never dared to before. We wanted to work out how we could avoid the trap of “toxic masculinity” in the future – especially the belief that we should never ask for help.
"Man Up" No Answer to Man Down
So, how could we let go of our inhibitions and speak from the heart? Then one of the group shared a video from YouTube: Why I'm done trying to be "man enough," by Justin Baldoni. It nailed toxic masculinity and just how we were all feeling. Suddenly, our WhatsApp group was buzzing.
Next time we met, we began to admit the pressure we were all under, all of the time. Not just to earn, to provide, to succeed – but to be brilliant, exceptional, to be always acing it.
We laughed together at the cultural stereotype, but we knew this was layered on top of something even more fundamental. We’d each kept up a façade all our lives to create the illusion of the acceptable alpha male. It had been a rule that we should “man up,” even with one another. Now we were giving ourselves permission to break that rule.
The result was amazing. It turned out that a lot of us were holding back information, afraid of being laughed at. For once, instead of talking about sports, we were talking about real life. It was like a weight off our shoulders.
And our bereaved friend joined in. We hadn’t bullied him into talking, or made him the center of the discussion. Instead, he’d discovered he was no different from the rest of us. And, like the rest of us, he felt liberated that we could, after all, have this conversation.
We wanted more! So we agreed to meet again, to repeat the experience, and now it’s a monthly event. We’ve looked at subjects as diverse as the marketing of male grooming, and the pressures it creates to compete and consume. And one of the group revealed that he has kept his dyslexia a secret all his life.
Our events are called “Mandem Linkup,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the hardened street persona most from our area try to live up to. Now we have between five and 12 of us meeting every time.
We’ve kept the meetings informal but there are some rules to help keep us safe. No one shares other people’s personal stuff outside of the group, and everyone gets a turn to pick the topic. There’s no obligation to speak, and some people never do. But they listen and support the rest of us with their presence.
We hold the meetings wherever we feel comfortable, in public or private. Mainly, where we can concentrate and hear one another properly – so not the crowded bar we tried once!
Often, we’ll chat over food or drinks, and sometimes we’ll have traveled quite a way to be there. We don’t set a time limit on our discussion, so we can go into as much depth as we want without feeling rushed.
Each month’s host shares in advance a news story, blog, video… something that grabs his attention and challenges toxic masculinity or supports our understanding of masculinity, and then he’ll run the meeting.
Don't Worry, Be Chatty
I’ve been surprised and impressed at the emotional intelligence of the group – I don’t think many of us expected to be able to handle this kind of scenario so well. We’ve found that making time for open conversation gives us a safe space in our lives that we didn’t have before. I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved.
A few of my old friends know about the meetings but are adamant that they don’t want to attend, or to pick up the discussion topics themselves. So we stick to the usual banter when we’re together.
In contrast, some of our wives, girlfriends, partners, co-workers, and friends are getting increasingly curious, even envious, about the group. If only they could do something similar, they say. You might be wondering about this yourself.
There is one thing that I'd like you to take away from this, especially if you’re a guy. Just open up to your friends. Don’t be afraid: that is toxic masculinity in action. Chances are some of them have the same worries and hurts that you do.
Take it from me, they will be thankful that you've given them the opportunity to discuss their troubles with you.
For further insight into some of the topics raised in this blog, try the Mind Tools articles on Authenticity, Emotional Intelligence, Self-Esteem and Empathy. (Some may be available to Club members only.)
How have these issues affected you? Share your experiences in the Comments, below.