American Men’s Hidden Crisis: They Need More Friends!
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Of all people in America, adult, white, heterosexual men have the fewest friends. Moreover, the friendships they have, if they’re with other men, provide less emotional support and involve lower levels of self-disclosure and trust than other types of friendships. When men get together, they’re more likely to do stuff than have a conversation. Friendship scholar Geoffrey Greif calls these “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships, contrasting them to the “face-to-face” friendships that many women enjoy. If a man does have a confidant, three-quartersof the time it’s a woman, and there’s a good chance she’s his wife or girlfriend.
When I first began researching this topic I thought, surely this is too stereotypical to be true. Or, if it is true, I wondered, perhaps the research is biased in favor of female-type friendships. In other words, maybe we’re measuring male friendships with a female yardstick. It’s possible that men don’t want as many or the same kinds of friendships as women.
But they do. When asked about what they desire from their friendships, men are just as likely as women to say that they want intimacy. And, just like women, their satisfaction with their friendships is strongly correlated with the level of self-disclosure. Moreover, when asked to describe what they mean by intimacy, men say the same thing as women: emotional support, disclosure and having someone to take care of them.
Men desire the same level and type of intimacy in their friendships as women, but they aren’t getting it.
n an effort to understand why men’s friendships are less intimate than women’s, psychologist Niobe Way interviewed boys about their friendships in each year of high school. She found that younger boys spoke eloquently about their love for and dependence on their male friends. In fact, research shows that boys are just as likely as girls to disclose personal feelings to their same-sex friends and they are just as talented at being able to sense their friends’ emotional states.
But, at about age 15 to 16 — right at the same age that the suicide rate of boys increases to four times the rate of girls — boys start reporting that they don’t have friends and don’t need them. Because Way interviewed young men across each year of high school, she was able to document this shift. One boy, Justin, said this in his first year, when he was 15:
[My best friend and I] love each other… that’s it… you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that person is that person… I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other.
By his senior year, however, this is what he had to say about friendship:
[My friend and I] we mostly joke around. It’s not like really anything serious or whatever… I don’t talk to nobody about serious stuff… I don’t talk to nobody. I don’t share my feelings really. Not that kind of person or whatever… It’s just something that I don’t do.
During these years, young men are learning what it means to be a “real man.” The #1 rule: avoid everything feminine. Notice that a surprising number of insults that we fling at men are actually synonyms for or references to femininity. Calling male athletes “girls,” “women” and “ladies” is a central part of motivation in sports. Consider also slurs like “bitch” and “pussy,” which obviously reference women, but also “fag” (which on the face of it is about sexual orientation, but can also be a derogatory term for men who act feminine) and “cocksucker” (literally a term for people who sexually service men). This, by the way, is where the ubiquitous slur “you suck” comes from; it’s an insult that means you give men blow jobs.