Why Can’t Us Men Tell Each Other How We Feel?
For the last few weeks I’ve been swimming in numbers. Working towards Friendship Lab’s release into the world, we did a survey on adults and friendship. Nearly a thousand participants so far have shared their joys, fears and frustrations over this important but undervalued relationship. Having invested a few years into researching it now, I thought I knew a bit about the topic. Then a conversation on the weekend showed me I needed as much help as anyone.
The Nebulous Relationship
Friendship can be confusing. Unlike a romantic relationship where feelings are clearly shared and commitments publicly made in events like weddings, friendship’s informality can make it hard to know where we stand. I may see you as a friend while you see me as an acquaintance. I may have you in my A list while you have me in your B list. In our survey, people repeatedly asked how to know when someone likes you back.
I was talking about this with my friend DJ when he said, “Just so you know, you’re on my A list.” And how did I reply to this touching confession? “And to me, my friend,” I quipped, “you are a solid C!” It was funny and we laughed hard, but realising I was messing up a sacred moment, I added something about if I had a bestie then he’d be it, which came out half-baked and awkward. Later I wondered why I couldn’t just express what I felt and say, “DJ, you’re the closest friend I’ve ever had.”
How and when to express affection also came up in our survey, often by men. It wasn’t always this difficult. Letters between male friends in previous centuries overflow with affection, like this one from William Thackery to Edward FitzGerald in 1834:
What I like to think of better than your generosity or cause of it, is the noble and brotherly love I believe unites us together; my dear friend and brother, may God grant that no time or circumstance ever should diminish this love between us…
FitzGerald was even worried he’d disappoint his friend on next meeting, given how warm their letters had become:
Thackery, I lay you ten thousand pounds that you will be thoroughly disappointed when we come together – our letters have been so warm, that we shall expect each minute to contain a sentence like those in our letters… Do not think I speak this in a light-hearted way about the tenacity of our friendship, but with a very serious heart anxious lest we should disappoint each other, and so lessen our love a little…
But then Sigmund Freud came along. While there are a number of reasons for men retreating emotionally (including the British ‘stiff upper lip’ idea nurtured in elite schools and exported widely over the decades), consumed as he was with sex, when Freud suggested there were hidden romantic desires beneath any affections our friendships have, men started reigning in their words. Now when a mate gets close all we can do is joke.
Thankfully there are other models to learn from. In the Bible, King David writes a moving poem for his friend Jonathan, describing their platonic love as “more wonderful than that of a woman.” That’s vulnerable stuff from a warrior. Jesus told his closest allies they were no longer colleagues to him but friends, and his love for his friend Lazarus was well known amongst his community—he even broke down in tears at Lazarus’ grave.
I may not be ready to write a poem yet, but I can pick up the phone or send a text to let DJ, Jason, Allen, and others I treasure know what they mean to me. No mention of A and B lists is needed, just a clear word that I really do like them back.
First shared in shortened form on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Breakfast Show (listen here)