Men are vulnerable to loneliness, and we’re vulnerable because of loneliness. As we grow up, we absorb countless messages about being strong and self-sufficient, and experience at first or second hand the many ways a man can be judged and punished for being ‘weak’.
One of the impacts of the pandemic is that we lose most of our regular avenues for socialisation, and we start to feel the absence of all those easy and informal opportunities- a conversation in the staff kitchen, singling out one or two people in a group at a bar or a barbecue to talk to, sitting with a bunch of friends in front of the tv watching sport.
To prevent loneliness, we need a certain amount of one-to-one contact, the sort that you just can’t get from a Zoom group chat. But when the alternative is making a call, being the first one to reach out, this is when we start to get into trouble. The vulnerability is right there. Will he think I’m being weak? What if he doesn’t want to talk? A man I was talking to last week said that friends found out he’d been dealing with something (after it was over), and told him they would have been there for him if only he'd contacted them. So, feeling down a bit later, he tried taking them up on the offer, but they wouldn’t even answer the phone.
Some men manage to do male friendships well, and don’t seem to struggle so much with having men in their lives who can really be counted on. We need to have them tell their stories, so the rest of us can learn from them, and start preparing for when the going gets tough, or even when it’s just moderately uncomfortable. I mean, just how bad do things have to be for men to reach out?
And how bad do things have to be for us to take the risk of not being good enough at supporting each other, and answer the damned phone, or reply to that text message?
I think this last question points to the other vulnerability men have around loneliness – being scared of failing at being a good support to other men. After all, we’re supposed to be able to handle anything life throws at us. Perhaps the vulnerability is because we're not confident that we know how to act in this situation. How do I talk to this guy? Does my voice tone have to get softer like I was comforting one of my children when they fall and hurt themselves? Won’t he think that’s weird? I know it will feel weird to me. What can I say that would be comforting? How the hell would I know? I never let other people comfort me, so I have no idea what comforting words there are for me to us.
Where does this vulnerability around being a support come from? Look around you. How often do you see men supporting each other? Encouraging a male friend to share what he was dealing with, asking questions about how he’s feeling, validating his experiences and what’s important to him that’s being impacted, telling him it’s ok to be sad. We see so little of this going on around us, because there's more social constraint than permission.
What we need are some widespread beliefs and a bunch of behaviours to pass down through our families and to be reflected in our communities, on our tv programs and in our movies, which tell us it's ok for men to show compassion - not just other men, but to ourselves as well - and this is how it's done.
Instead we perpetuate the belief that having needs and problems is a sign of weakness, by our silence and by our unwillingness to engage in the conversation. Or we join the ranks of the weakness police, where the first suspect for surveillance is usually ourselves.
Think about the men you know. Is there someone you know you’ve been avoiding, because you’re uncomfortable with what he’s been dealing with? I know there’s one guy in my life that ticks that box. Make contact today. I dare you…
Greg Aldridge, CEO EveryMan Australia