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Want the Man in Your Life to Open Up and Share What’s on His Mind? Here’s What’s Really Going On in His Brain.
Why men don't talk
I’m just as guilty of this as any man.
When asked about my well-being, I often answer with a curt, “I’m fine,“ regardless of whether it’s true or not.
Why the reluctance to be honest and share my man-feelings?
In most cases, a superficial response is automatic. I don’t think about it. I interpret questions related to my health and well-being as a default to initiating a conversation. I tend to give the question zero credibility because I don’t believe anyone really wants to hear the truth.
So why do I think that way?
Centuries of cultural conditioning have done a real number on men. Baked into society’s expectations, a man’s “feelings” were far less important than the need to conform to the traditional and socially-idealized version of a strong, respected, successful man.
Growing up, we were constantly told to take charge, steer the ship, plant the flag. Above all, we were supposed to keep our foot on the gas. “You don’t need to rest,” we were told, “you need to succeed. And if that means pushing harder, longer, stronger, don’t think about it, just do it.”
In short, there was no place for our silly man-feelings.
As long as we turned the big wheel, met every challenge head-on, and focused our efforts on victory, the world responded with a reassuring thumbs-up.
In short, growing up as an American male meant we belonged to THE CLUB — an unofficial, exclusively male organization with only two rules: (1) Stay Strong, (2) Stay Silent. And yet, we can’t quite remember when we joined, and have no idea how much the dues are really costing us.
Not that there haven’t been attempts to break down the walls.
Thirty-five years ago, there was an organized effort to focus on men’s issues. The goal was to provide men an alternative to the social conditioning and traditional cultural expectations they’d modeled since birth. That meant creating a time and place where men could disclose their feelings and TALK about their motivations, intentions, and regrets.
Psychologists, therapists, and life-change gurus invited men to come together to discuss their personal lives; what worked and what didn’t, and how they felt about it. But it didn’t happen without a lot of hesitation and outright suspicion.
First, the stigma attached to taking part in any activity associated with mental health was a huge obstacle. It was interpreted as a sign of weakness, and many of the participants voiced their concern over being judged or seen as inadequate.
Even under the banner of enhanced communication and open exchange, most men still needed some kind of “official” permission to set aside their traditional roles and talk about their feelings.
In short, men needed a bridge.
That bridge materialized in the form of drum circles, talking sticks, and a host of other metaphors to create “safe spaces,” opportunities for men to lower their masks of invulnerability and express their fears.
And since this all happened as I was beginning my counseling internship, I received the full immersion. I beat the drum, passed around the talking stick, and told a group of strangers how it felt to grow up in a home with a mother possessed by the Holy Spirit to the point that beating the hell out of me was both a metaphorical and actual event.
My biggest takeaway in functioning as a facilitator in these groups? Even within the non-judgmental environment, I was struck by the sense of embarrassment and discomfort expressed by the majority of men when it was their turn to open up and share.
First, understand that this was not an attempt to neutralize gender-specific differences from a polarized Mars-Venus perspective — the men were neither misogynistic nor chauvinist. In fact, the only time women were mentioned in the conversation was how it might have been beneficial to have them participate in the exercises to obtain a female perspective.
Second, these men were pioneers, willing to confront the very notion of what it means to be a man. All their lives they had been told, shown, and reminded how a man is supposed to act. By simply expressing an alternative mindset, they were abandoning their brothers-in-arms, rattling the sabers of rebellion and mutiny.
Some of them prefaced their participation with words to that effect:
“If I disclose my feelings, others will interpret it as weakness or fear, and I’m afraid I’ll be judged as less of a man.”
They were concerned that a show of intentional vulnerability could result in being thought of as less capable of taking charge and getting things done.
“He’s soft, easy to take advantage of.
“He doesn’t have what it takes to cut it in today’s business world.
“I think he’d fold up under pressure. I’d be hesitant to give him more responsibility.”
For a lot of men, it was simply too much to ask.
Beating their drum at work could cost them a promotion. Beating it at home could cause them to lose the respect of their kids.
If gender-prescribed behavior isn’t bad enough, there’s another cultural component that has historically contributed to men’s reluctance to voice their feelings.
Remember the big Sears stores that were typically part of most large shopping centers? They offered aisle after aisle of merchandise — everything from firearms to fine china.
A traditional couple might enter the store together, but twenty feet in, the man usually made a bee-line for the hardware section, a magical place with its native language — Craftsman — spoken in hushed, reverent tones. It was there that discussions over setting a spark plug gap, the best oil viscosity, and the advantages of using a torque wrench were bantered about as if the world’s future political stability counted on the outcome.
Meanwhile, the lady of the house was busy comparing sheet thread count, picking out a new coat for the couple’s son, and checking out the finish on that new dining room hutch that caught her eye in the catalog.
Why the separation?
It wasn’t necessarily because women had no interest in tools and lawnmowers or that good ‘ol dad didn’t care what kind of coat his son wore. It was a display of identity by association. Men displayed an interest in man-things — because that’s what men did.
A real man wouldn’t be caught dead in the “Softer Side of Sears.”
It was (and in many cases, still is), an expected part of the American experience . . . separate the world into two general categories and give each an associated gender.
The indoctrination started early — from the earliest childhood experiences.
On Christmas and birthdays, little girls received Easy Bake Ovens, Barbie Dolls, and Etch-a-Sketches. The boys unwrapped footballs, Erector sets, and model airplanes.
It was the beginning of Gender Conditioning. Not only were the kids learning how they were expected to act around each other, they also began to realize there was an invisible but very real line between the sexes.
A quick glance around an elementary school playground made it obvious how well this early indoctrination had worked. The rope-skipping, hop-scotching, jack-playing crowd was exclusively female. The rough and tumble games and activities were reserved for the boys, where they learned taking sides was a natural part of the competition, and conflict was inevitable.
The boys didn’t skip rope and the girls didn’t carry the ball over the goal line. That was just the way it was. No one questioned it. No one asked why. Nobody confronted the rule makers with an objection. And the sooner we accepted it, the less likely we were labeled a troublemaker.
Then along comes John Gray with “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” published in 1992.
Gray proposed that men and women have different communication styles, needs, and ways of expressing emotion. He claimed that men typically need to feel appreciated and respected for their contributions, while women often need to feel loved and supported.
One of the most interesting conclusions drawn by Gray was men often express love through actions, such as fixing things or doing favors, while women often express love through words and affection.
A quick look at our cultural history makes it clear these are learned behaviors. Those early years on the playground taught boys to be competitive — even combative — in sports and other physical activities. The girls learned cooperation and sharing. Typical birthday and Christmas presents helped to teach boys how to build things. Girls learned nurturing skills, with an emphasis on doing for others.
There’s too much of a connection between those early experiences and resulting gender-specific behavior to be a coincidence.
With this culturally-approved separation of behavior — defined by gender — it’s no wonder men adopted the traditional strong and silent role. To reject it was to invite criticism, disappointment, and mistrust.
A man who displayed sensitivity, sympathy, or vulnerability was effectively resigning from the brotherhood, turning their back on centuries of prescribed gender roles. Worse, he couldn’t be counted on in a crunch.
The bottom line was simple, but it wasn’t pretty . . .
Asking men to adopt a mindset that is driven less by machismo and more by neutral objectivity comes with a cost, and weighing that cost is a constant for men. In practice, it means every situation in which a “masculine” response is an option creates a brainstorm of questions:
Is this the proper venue to reveal my concerns?
If I’m overheard, will I be misunderstood?
How do I open myself up to being more flexible and forthcoming without being perceived as weak?
Once I disclose my fears, will others assume I’m a coward?
Sometimes, for some men, it’s too much — and far simpler to keep their thoughts to themselves.
Here’s the Takeaway . . .
Historical and cultural biases have influenced and defined gender-appropriate behavior for centuries. Men have been told to “Walk it off; Be a man; Quit belly-aching; Stop complaining and get it done.”
Separation of the sexes drove the point home . . . boys and girls were different from each other. Not just physically, but in their approach to the world, in the way they expressed themselves, and in the mental representations they formed because of the way they were raised, influenced, and taught. It was only a small leap of logic to assume these differences also translated into how they communicated with each other.
The constant need for men to meet the expectations of culturally-defined masculinity while being emotionally available is a societal oxymoron that reveals the very reason men are reluctant to speak openly and candidly.
It’s because they’re afraid of being judged . . .
As less capable than other men. As someone who can’t defend himself or his family.
Knowing that can provide a huge advantage in getting the men in your life to open up. If you can assure them that whatever they say will be taken in context, without being filtered, compared, or otherwise considered inappropriate for their gender, they’re likely to be a lot more receptive to telling you what’s on their mind.
Just keep in mind that getting men to talk about their innermost challenges, hopes, and dreams isn’t going to happen overnight. But if you have a male partner, friend, family member, or associate who might benefit from a little open and honest conversation, hand them this article and ask them what they think.
Ask them if there is any part of it that really hits home and, given the chance to set aside traditional gender expectations, would they like the opportunity to talk on their terms, in an environment of their choosing?
It’s a way to start, and you may be surprised to find that the men in your life were just waiting for an invitation.
Thanks for reading,
Roger A. Reid, Ph.D. is a certified NLP trainer with degrees in engineering and business. Roger is the author of Better Mondays and Speak Up, and host of Success Point 360 Podcast, offering tips and strategies for achieving higher levels of career success and personal fulfillment in the real world.
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