Gender, Reflexivity and Friendship

There’s a great article by Lisa Wade in Salon talking about the ‘hidden crisis’ of white heterosexual American men. They have the fewest friends of any group within American society and, it seems, they wish they had more. What really caught my attention was the description of the qualitative characteristics of the relations they have and those which they seek:

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, threequarters of the time it’s a woman, and there’s a good chance she’s his wife or girlfriend.

From a relational realist perspective, it’s important to identify the distinctive self/other interactions generative of the kinds of relational bonds identified here. These ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ friendships, grounded in shared interests and reproduced through shared activity, involve a reciprocal orientation towards practice. The friendships grounded in self-disclosure, what Archer calls ‘thought and talk’, involve a reciprocal orientation to each other. The problem is that sustaining these relations necessitates work to sustain the continuity upon which they are founded. Reciprocal self-disclosure which is subjectively satisfying and meaningful to each party, as well as the trust which it depends upon but also generates, necessitates ‘catching up’ as a regular activity. It involves making the effort to know what is going on in the other’s life. It depends upon shared understandings and shared references points because otherwise self-disclosure, externalising internal conversation to a trusted interlocutor, doesn’t work. Without the contextual continuity upon which ‘face-to-face’ friendships are based, self-disclosure doesn’t bring about understanding in the other. The friend may be sympathetic. They may be helpful. But they simply won’t understand in the same way. This in turn leads to a diminished propensity towards self-disclosure:

For those people who gradually learn that their internal conversations do indeed ‘make sense only to themselves’, this discovery has far-reaching consequences. Attempts at spoken interchange about one’s internal deliberations are rebuffed by incomprehension or misunderstanding. Since renewed efforts to make oneself clear usually involved greater self-revelation, continued failure is doubly hurtful and self-defence consist in withdrawal … And to stop (or possibly never to begin) throws one back on one’s own mental resources. In turn, that makes significant tracts of a person’s internal conversation self-contained and knowingly not for traffic in spoken conversation. (Archer 2007: 86)

In late modernity contextual continuity is something that has to be worked at because it’s valued. What I found so thought-provoking about Lisa Wade’s article is the extent to which it suggests that white heterosexual American men would value relations which had these characteristics:

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.

But Wade argues that gender norms intervene. I think this can be usefully understood in terms of the gendering of internal conversation, with normative sanction attached to adolescent boys engaging in ‘thought and talk’:

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.

So men are pressed — from the time they’re very young — to disassociate from everything feminine. This imperative is incredibly limiting for them. Paradoxically, it makes men feel good because of a social agreement that masculine things are better than feminine things, but it’s not the same thing as freedom. It’s restrictive and dehumanizing. It’s oppression all dressed up as awesomeness. And it is part of why men have a hard time being friends.

To be close friends, men need to be willing to confess their insecurities, be kind to others, have empathy and sometimes sacrifice their own self-interest. “Real men,” though, are not supposed to do these things. They are supposed to be self-interested, competitive, non-emotional, strong (with no insecurities at all), and able to deal with their emotional problems without help. Being a good friend, then, as well as needing a good friend, is the equivalent of being girly.

As this cultural environment throws them back upon their own resources (“I don’t talk to nobody about serious stuff… I don’t talk to nobody. I don’t share my feelings really.”) it becomes increasingly difficult to establish ‘face-to-face’ friendships even if the characteristics of these friendships are sought after. It’s important not to see ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ friendships as intrinsically diminished though, which I think Wade’s post does to a certain extent, however this is another topic in its own right. I also think we need to see what I presume is a diminishment of homosociality (that’s empirically true, right? I just realised I’ve assumed it in the past but don’t know) in this context. Nonetheless this article captures something important about male homosociality in late modern societies:

Of course, not all men buy into these prescriptions for male behavior, but these expectations do influence most men’s friendships at least a little bit. They mean that, to make good friends, men have to take risks. In a context in which being a man is good and being friendly is being womanly, each time a man tries to form intimate bonds with another man, he potentially loses status. Men who want truly close friends have to fight the instinct to protect their standing above all else. This isn’t easy, as they’ve been told for a lifetime that their status as male, and their place in that hierarchy, is a significant part of why they’re important and valuable human beings.

Men also have to find other men who are willing to take those risks with them. Knowing who to reach out to isn’t always easy, as men often wear a masculine guise, a mask that projects masculinity and hides the things about them that are disallowed. In one study of men’s experiences, one college-age man explained: “I am more of an emotional person. … I never really felt much like who I [pretended to be] because I [was]… putting my man face on.”

These norms are something which need to be seen in historical perspective. There’s a great discussion in Doris Goodwin’s Lincoln biography of the ‘intimate male attachments’ which were common in his time. While it’s perfectly possible that Lincoln may very well have been having sex with some of these famously close male friends, the propensity of many commentators to assume this as a matter of reflex speaks volumes about the cultural tendency Wade discusses in this article. Interestingly Goodwin offers a sociological account of the intensity which characterised the ‘intimate male attachments’ amongst men of Lincoln’s generation:

The family-focused and community-centred life led by most men in the colonial era was transformed at the dawn of the new century into an individual and career-oriented existence. As the young men of Seward and Lincoln’s generation left the familiarity of their small communities and travelled to seek employment in fast-growing, anonymous cities or in distant territories, they often felt unbearably lonely. In the absence of parents and siblings, they turned to one another for support, sharing thoughts and emotions so completely that their intimate friendships developed the qualities of passionate romances. (pg 33)

Are similar trends on the horizon? Will the desire for more intimate friendships described by Wade actually lead to them?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

About Mark