Last night at a family wedding reception I heard a rather moving speech given by the brother of the groom. At one point the Best Man looked at me and said, “Kevin knows our family are not known for our intimate conversations.” Given that I married into this family my observations have always been that this family does small talk well and that they demonstrate their care for one another by “showing up”, not necessarily expressive words. I speak from no place of judgement, if anything I am more averse to flowery, sentimental and emotion-tinged words myself.
At the wedding there were the standard male hugs, where one man hugs another, three pats on the back (no more, no less) and the even more standard “I love you man”. It’s what men do at weddings and funerals. As an 80’s feminist I am not sure I buy into the gender essentialist arguments that seem to unite older and younger people these days, that men and women are essentially different, in each and every way. I often feel these arguments are created by both sides to excuse some questionable behaviour and that to justify some rather strange parenting. A father once told me he could not allow his infant son to be baptized in the family gown for fear it would forever change him. So the lad was baptized instead in a satin tuxedo, complete with bow tie.
I think making up contexts for male encounters, like meeting in man caves, playing golf and this cliché man hug is a distraction from the more pressing challenge, when are we going to talk about things that matter? I frankly don’t cry, I rarely hug and I don’t use the words “I love you” often. But to me this is confusing the colour of the conversation with the substance. Surely men, or women for that matter, can have a conversation about matters that go to the substance of their lives, the things that keep them up at night, the things they dream about, the experiences where they feel deeply connected and alive, and not have to conform to some Hollywood or Hallmark expectation. Surely two men can sit and talk about their families, their work, their passions, their deep worries and their great joys without crying, hugging or using the word love in each sentence.
There has been a lot of work done on male spirituality and most of it leaves me cold. It feels more about form than substance, when the conversation ends I am no closer to knowing who I am talking to. Some men ask me how they can foster deeper relationships with other men, I suggest they start with talking about what matters to them, what they truly care about, the things they would talk about if they knew their lives would not go on forever. See where that takes you.
Yes some men and some women cry easily and need tactile connections. I get that. Some of us don’t. There is a certain hard-wired quality to this distinction. Again, I think this is more form than substance. But we all need to connect at a deeper level and however we get there we need to focus more on what we discuss. How we have that discussion is a product of culture, context and comfort level, but what we talk about should have everything to do with what is life and what is death to us.