Talkin’ man-to-man: Why men fail to communicate

Photo by Will Huang

To me, the ability to communicate is the strongest asset a man could carry. But I didn’t always see it that way.

Growing up within the traditional structure of masculinity, emotional expression and manliness often didn’t go hand-in-hand. Explaining what’s on my mind didn’t fit the system. Expressing my troubles vocally wasn’t a conceivable solution. So my words were shaped by letters. Suddenly, through the power of my keyboard, I was allowed to talk.

I write everything. Every thought I have. Every idea. Every fear and every desire. For so long, it was because I thought no one would be willing to listen but my screen.

Anyone who knows me would say I fit the traditional mould of masculinity. I’m a 21-year-old, heterosexual male who is borderline athletic, more than comfortable outdoors (in fact, I’ll always prefer it), can grow a full beard, weight lift regularly — and often have more confidence than is probably good for me.

I’m not boasting; I’m saying I fit into the comic book narrative of dominance and assertion, of control and alpha composure, of absolute self-sufficiency. I get it. It’s cool to be the tough guy. It’s expected. Grab your shield and flex your muscles, Cap! The Avengers need you! But don’t let anyone know you’re actually Steve Rogers (pre super-serum).

Somewhere within this structure of masculinity, being tough and in control has translated to being emotionless and distant. That’s the direction ‘being a man’ has taken, and I didn’t realize it until my keyboard stopped being enough.

There’s an event I run with my fraternity we call “Highs and Lows.” To avoid spilling the beans on the sacred secrecy of fraternal affairs, I’ll only say that it’s an episode where we sit around the fireplace and pass around a talking stick: a bottle of Jack Daniels. Through this exchange, we each voluntarily share what’s on our minds, our deepest fears, our strongest desires, the lowest and highest points in our lives. Suddenly, with the flame flickering and the whisky burning, the armour is removed, our weapons of toughness lowered. With our guard let down, we’re suddenly permitted to be human.

Through this experience, I learn more about my buddies than I ever would have. For the first time, I’m able to hear about their deepest struggles, their emotional conditions and the anguishes ripping them apart from the inside out. But isn’t it strange that the only time so many men feel able to communicate on this level of emotional expression is when we literally have to establish permission to speak? That our words are only granted by the masculine resonance of alcoholic consumption?

I’ve noticed that vulnerability is like dropping a match in gasoline —the flame quickly spreads. When one guy shares, everyone else is also willing to open up. Why? Because it’s been boiling under our toughened skin. Deep down, many dudes just want their feelings to be heard.

“When they look at the dominant narrative of manhood in society, a lot of young men grow up internalizing very unhealthy ideas around what it means to be a, quote unquote, ‘real man,’” said Stephen Soucie, the program coordinator with Male Allies — an organization housed by the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo (SASC).

SASC’s Male Allies program focusses on ending gender-based violence through public education for boys and men. The initiative encourages critical introspection of manhood through workshops and sessions.

“Never showing emotion, aggression, that sort of self-sufficient, self-reliant, always in control narrative is pretty one-dimensional,” Soucie said.

“It doesn’t allow young men to be fully human beings. There might be some specific characteristics that are not wrong or negative within the dominant narrative, things like leadership or strength. But we want to encourage men to endure characteristics beyond the traditional man-box.”

The man-box is all too common throughout boyhood. Hockey coaches and fathers preach its ideals all the time. “Suck it up! Don’t be a pussy! Puke is weakness leaving your body!” (If you’ve ever seen Friday Night Tykes on Netflix, I recommend a couple episodes for the pure affirmation of this idea and the proliferation of some laughably alarming “fatherly” quotes.)

“A lot of men assume that women are ‘naturally’ more emotional than men. And they assume that men are more ‘biologically’ rational than women. We need to complicate that. A lot of young men and boys are schooled to supress their emotions, to only express anger,” Soucie said.

“We want to give men more tools in their emotional tool box so they can communicate their emotions rather than harming other men, harming women, or harming themselves.”

Soucie then told me his favourite Frederick Douglass quote: “It’s easier to repair strong children than to repair broken men.”

And it’s true. As we inch closer towards the inevitable realm of adulthood, the dangerous ideals of our childhood threaten to latch onto whoever it is we become and whoever we raise our children to follow. It’s up to those who grow and learn beyond societal expectations to break out of the boundaries men have been situated firmly within.

“I think for a lot of guys growing up, we didn’t have that,” Stephen said, referring to the realization of not having to fulfill the dominant narrative.

“I often think about how different my life would’ve been if somebody had these conversations with me.”

Many fathers neglect to show tears as they take on the percieved responsibilities of being in control and unsentimental, of being selfless and unemotional. Sons follow suit.

I asked Soucie how men could start breaking out of the structure of masculinity that holds back their ability to communicate intimately with one another.

“Start being comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he said.

“You have to make yourself vulnerable. And it’s not easy. A lot of this work is unlearning, rather than learning. You have to unlearn how to interact with other men. How to understand ourselves in the world.”

It’s a constant process of self-discovery, one that resists everything we may believe ourselves to be. But let me be the first to tell you: being a man isn’t the same as being a robot.

To any dudes reading this, I challenge to look at your best male friend today. When was the last time he told you what’s really on his mind? Not just how many goals he scored in his last intramural hockey game, or how drunk he got at Phil’s a couple nights before, but ask yourself if you really know what’s going on with him. If the answer is no, it’s time to start asking him. He may look at you funny. He’ll likely nod you off with a dumb smirk. But letting him know that you’re a pair of ears willing to listen can mean the difference between being a real friend and an accompanying locker buddy — great for laughs, but just there to pass the time.

Sam Nabi, a volunteer with SASC, participated in a six-week training program with Male Allies which focussed on fleshing out self-reflection amongst men as allies for survivors of sexual assault.

He agreed to explain the experience of introspection amongst a group of other men going through similar problems.

“By the end of the six weeks, it had really become a bonding experience with other members in the group — there were about ten guys,” Nabi explained.

“It wasn’t so much that there was a day where we were like, ‘okay everyone, we’re going to share our darkest secrets with everybody today.’ It was working through these issues and themes that naturally became emotional; we were talking about how we interact with people in the world.”

Nabi touched on what male bonding usually looks like and how depth of conversation isn’t usually a part of that.

“So much of male bonding is just, you know, we’re going to go play pick-up together, or we’re going to go play pool. It’s an activity that doesn’t require much conversation. The act of talking about real stuff with each other made us open up naturally.”

Nabi went on to explain that you don’t have to be worried when talking about heavier topics with people you encounter.

“I think men get their guard up a lot more easily about stuff like that. They think: this conversation is going into an area of people’s personal lives. I’m going to steer it away; let’s talk about something else.”

And just in case you think I’m bullshitting about this massive void of distance between male friends, Nabi sees the disconnect as well.

“For myself, I would say that a lot of the male friends that I’m close with, I still don’t know much about their lives, when I really think about it,” Nabi explained.

“And I don’t share a whole lot about my life, either. It’s a huge barrier. It’s a hard one to get over.”

Nabi’s perspective is no different than many of my own friends. For the past year, I’ve made the conscious effort to connect with guys that haven’t really opened up with me before. As a result, I began to see them for who they really are.

Beyond their daily personas, I began to see what drives them forward, their motivations behind tackling daily challenges. I became a better friend because I was suddenly willing to offer undivided attention.

Nothing needs to be said, either. Too many times, people think that communication constantly has to be a two-way street. People continuously feel that they need to run their mouths with meaningless advice or feelings of relation in order to affirm their roles of caring about what’s being said to them. But in those cases, they’re not listening to understand; they’re listening to respond. And that’s the biggest miscommunication in human history.

Just listening as your friend gets shit off his chest is all you have to do. Don’t try and muster up some clever response, don’t try and break the tension with a witty comment, don’t place a calculated hand on your friend’s shoulder as a ‘physical reminder that they’re not alone in this world.’ Cut that shit out, man!

Be there. Listen. That’s it.

“There’s a belief within the man-box that men are supposed to have all the answers. If you’re in a situation where you want to express some doubts, that they’re worried about something, I think a lot people are afraid that makes them look weak. People are afraid to admit that they’re worried about what might happen after they graduate. That they don’t know what’s in this big world out there,” Nabi said.

“You might not have the answers and maybe you’re not necessarily looking for any answers, but you just want to share that. Once one person does it, it opens the door for other conversations.”

Being worried isn’t the same as being weak. On the contrary, it proves that you’re strong enough to not let your insecurities hold you back from sharing what’s on your mind. Vulnerability establishes stability, proving to others that you’re comfortable in your own skin and not trying to hide.

Why am I telling you this? Who the hell am I to redefine masculinity? I’m just an outgoing Features Editor of The Cord who’s just as secretly clueless about my life as any of you reading.

I don’t have the answers; I haven’t seen the glorious light at the end of the tunnel or whatever the fuck that means. I’m not telling you it’s imperative that you look your male friend in the eyes and dive into his emotional psyche. I’m simply saying, don’t let ‘being a man’ stop you from being a good guy, or from communicating what’s on your mind.

Don’t let fear of other people’s thinking trap you in a world where those that are closest to you feel so far away.

Don’t move on with your daily interactions casted with illusion of being fearless, in control and completely self-sufficient. It’s a difficult act to keep up.

This isn’t about what you consume in the media; it’s not about mindlessly taking my word as law. It’s about the boundaries you see in your own life and the restrictions you’re willing to walk across. It’s about asking yourself if you’re willing to walk out of the man-box.

Masculinity may be a changing term, but don’t let the term change you. Step outside the comic book. There’s a real world that needs saving.

That’s pretty manly if you ask me


Disclaimer: Sam Nabi is the web manager for WLUSP

    Leave a Reply