“Will you be my friend?” When is the last time you heard one man ask another that simple question? Little boys do it every day on the playground, but sometime around first grade, boys stop asking that question and they never ask it again. Because it quickly becomes an invitation for derision, sarcasm and rejection. Imagine Frank walks into a bar. He approaches a group of men from work. One guy says, “Frank, meet Bob.” They all chat for a while and then Frank says brightly, “Bob! I’m glad I met you. I like you. How would you like to be my friend?”
Cue the shocked stares. Because Frank just broke the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ rule of male friendship. Don’t admit you want or need friends. Don’t admit you need anything. Be confident. Be self reliant. Only if you don’t need friends will you be worthy of having them.
The Question Men Won’t Ask
The reason most American men would never ask another man directly to enter into a friendship is because boys and men in American culture are given little or no opportunity in life to master this kind of interpersonal risk taking. It creates a moment of uncertainty that is agonizing for men. To ask for friendship suggests vulnerability, flexible social standing or even willingness to admit need. All values which are roundly condemned in men.
American men are taught from an early age to access friendships obliquely, by joining clearly defined groups, teams or organizations. The opportunities for social contact arise in Boy Scouts, on baseball teams or in schools. This kind of social organizing aligns large populations of boys, teaching them to follow clear and simple rules of how to perform being a boy. Some organizations actually provide written hand books, manuals by which to determine rank, achievement, behavior and appropriate forms of expression. The Boy Scout handbook is one obvious example.
Within these organizations, even social stragglers are grudgingly allowed to remain part of the group regardless of their individual standing. Quickly, boys learn to self select their rank and standing within these organizations. Alphas at the top, socially awkward or needy boys at the bottom. Quickly, boys learn that advancing in the organization doesn’t require the higher skills of tracking nuance and uncertainty. Social risk taking is not rewarded. Being on top simply requires the application of confidence and assertion and a willingness to perform masculinity according to what is normative.
In this way, boys are taught to express a simplified social identity by virtue of their organizational associations. By extension, friendships formed in these organizations are also expressed in restricted and simplified ways. They are friendships that encourage conformity and avoid interpersonal authenticity.
In adulthood, men continue to seek friends in the safe but highly conforming contexts of work, team sports, church, or their wives’s social and familial connections. They become friends with the parents they meet at the PTA. They rely on the Lions Club, fraternity or their son’s scout troop. They connect by way of the organizations they embed themselves in, tracking and performing friendship in the ways that are collectively deemed normative.
Because these friendships are sourced in organizations, men keep much of their uniqueness hidden and cleave close to what is culturally normative for those institutions. This creates a high degree of homogeneity in how men express, engage and perform masculine friendship. Joe is my friend because Joe comes to bowling every week, not because Joe is necessarily someone I connect with on any other level. These kind of risk free, proximity based friendships can leave men feeling disconnected, hidden or unfulfilled emotionally. Organizational conformity guarantees belonging not expression.
Which is why for men, when their participation in any given organization ends, the relationships or friendships embedded in those organizations often end as well, unless emotional authenticity develops. Emotional authenticity is the glue that holds friendships together. Without it, they are too shallow and fragile to survive beyond simple convenience.
Welcome to the Man Box
In the absence of emotional authenticity, American men become homogeneous in their expression of self. This encourages their location, willingly or otherwise, in what many writers have come to call the ‘Man Box.’ The Man Box is a set of rigid expectations that define what a ‘real man’ is, particularly in American culture. A real man is strong and stoic. He doesn’t show emotions other than anger and excitement. He is a breadwinner. He is heterosexual. He is able-bodied. He plays or watches sports. He is the dominant participant in every exchange. He is a firefighter, a lawyer, a CEO. He is a man’s man. This ‘real man,’ as defined by the Man Box, represents what is supposedly normative and acceptable within the tightly controlled performance of American male masculinity.
Men will ask women to have sex and take a “no” without skipping a beat. Men will ask a customer to buy a product, and take “no” as just part of the territory. But asking another man to “please be my friend” represents social risk taking that’s just too potentially frightening to attempt. Because, in the moment a man asks this question, he has failed to be what all men are expected to be. He has failed to be, and pay close attention to the word I’m using here, competent.
Men move in circles of competence. This competency component is central to how men are ranked in the institutions they rely on for social connection; in sports, at work and in every garage and backyard BBQ in the country. We approach each other not just in terms of common interests, but in terms of our competency in those areas. Knowing how matters.
On top of that, we approach with our personal business wired tight and fully formed. We are successful, smart, happy and full of advice on how to correctly do what needs to be done. By extension, we already have plenty of friendships which spring fully formed into our lives, born magically out of our raw manly charisma and charm.
Trained to Hide Behind What We Can Leverage
The male focus on competency in social situations is tied to our belief that our chances of success socially increase when underpinned by something we can leverage. Our position in the company. Our financial success. Our skill at golf. Our willingness to advance the goals of the organization. Something other than the simple fact of who we are.
We lead with: “You’ll want to be my friend because of what I can provide, not because of who I am.” And men carry this same dynamic into their romantic relationships, often leading with the ‘good provider‘ story. It’s why we pay for dinner on the first date. It’s rooted in opening doors and providing service to women. Because somewhere, deep down, we’re worried we’re not enough without the financial or service element. Or worse, because we want to hold various forms of leverage in any relationship we enter.
Either way, its ultimately about male insecurity. Male insecurity born out of the fact that we have never been taught to lead with our own authentic emotional selves. Seeking friendship by offering what others can leverage is the central transactional skill boys are being taught from childhood. Buying our way in, instead of offering who we are as human beings, sets up a circular pattern by which men are always expected to bring, contribute, produce, provide.
In order to avoid interpersonal vulnerability, men are often convinced its easier buy their way into relationships in this transactional way. As if simply offering ourselves is too scary. This is why men are encouraged to be good providers. And its why we often take the bait. Collectively, we are raising men to feel insecure unless they can bring their transactional leverage. And its a lesson we were not taught by the women we date as adults, but by the boys we were first grouped with as children. That said, men and women alike participate in this generational cycle of emotional suppression. It’s pay to play.
So we take our personal stories off the table and put our competence, our networks and our alpha narratives up front. For men, if our friendships are exclusively about confidence and competence, then, by definition, they cannot be very authentic. Because no one is competent across the board. No one is completely without uncertainty or confusion.
Uncertainty = Courage = Friendship
When you share your uncertainty, you start asking much bigger questions. And it is in those conversations that one speaks with honesty and authenticity. Because engaging uncertainty is the highest form of courage, in doing so, we move toward certainty of a much deeper and more resilient kind.
If friendships in men’s lives seem shallow and transitory, it is because so many of those relationships are emotionally risk free and as such, lacking in authenticity.
Accordingly, I, for one, am seeking friendship in more individualized and direct ways. Outside my immediate networks, where everyone I meet is more likely to be like me. I’m going to look for friends away from my comfort zones. I’m going to take some risks, because the bland landscape of social conformity is not enough for me. And never has been.
If I get a “no thanks” I’m going to just move on and keep trying. I’m not going to lead anymore with something transactional that I think might be of value. Not my network. Not my business connections. Not my ability to earn approval by conforming to some set of expectations or common goals. Out front of all that, I’m just offering me. Myself. Because I’m proud of who I am. Getting here took a lot of blood, sweat and tears. And I’m not going to hide it just to make sure that others are universally comfortable with their choices.
Above all, I want to live a good life. I want to take risks. I want to be who I’m becoming. And continue to make more authentic, emotionally vibrant friends.