“Men talk side by side – Not face to face” said an interviewee on a radio piece about a mental health workshop popping up in a town in Ontario. No, not a workshop for mental health, an actual workshop with tools, wood, and things to tinker with. Ok, “what the heck? How is this going to help? And that’s bullsh*t, men do talk face to face!” were the first thoughts to race to my head as I continued my drive listening to the radio segment about this new concept.
It then hit me… Men do talk face to face but not about personal issues, and definitely not to other men!
Men are competitive by nature, whether it shows or not – irrelevant if we are aware of it or not. If you identify as a man, you’ve probably wondered “what is the one thing I am the best at?” or “how can I get to the top of this thing?” I know I have, and I still have that hindrance where deep down inside I strive to become the world-best at something. On the other hand: have you ever opened up to other guys or displayed a moment of weakness and saw them knocking you down the male hierarchy so fast you just couldn’t recover and save face? Yes, me too.
It is worth mentioning that the last scenario does not happen with your close (male) friends, the ones you know have your back. In fact real friends will help you out and shield you from that – but you have to be certain of your friends regardless of gender or roles. Know that if you seek help and your friends start knocking you down their hierarchy then they are toxic to you and you need to find or create a new group that will give you the support you deserve.
Yes I am a man, and I do say that we need to be supported – I, you, and every guy out there can only go so far alone. God knows this lockdown shows it on us. You should know there is no shame in that, except in pretending everything is fine while it is obvious that it isn’t.
So how did I realise that “men talk side by side” is actually true? How can you get men to open up and talk about it
Simple… the most man thing you can imagine… Fishing! I go fishing with my best bud often. We have a system where if one of us had a bad day/week at home or work or they just needed to vent off we’d text and meet to fish for a bit at our favourite spot. That is all fine – the realization was when we get to set up our gear, cast our rods into the water and sit… the conversation doesn’t start right away, only when we’re distracted by whatever we’re doing that the talking starts, and I don’t mean small talk, that is long gone by now, this is deep existential conversation we’re in. EURIKA! it is true that men talk side by side!
I have tried this with different men in different scenarios from working on a car, to building furniture, fixing instruments, gaming, sports, you name it, it works! So long as there is no direct (confrontational) eye-contact and an activity to distract us men. If there is a man in your life who is having a hard time communicating with you: try this approach but don’t push for the big topic – it’ll come out eventually. Don’t turn it into an “interrogation by fishing”
Why is “no eye-contact” a big factor here? Surely the distraction isn’t enough! I think this goes back to our competitive nature and that social hierarchy I mentioned earlier. Exposing my weakness or whatever is hurting me is a level of vulnerability I haven’t been allowed to experience growing up. We’ve been taught to toughen up, to be “the rock” holding everything in place – hearing “men don’t cry”, and “pick yourself up” – yet now when I desperately need help: how do I ask for it from us men who were taught to look down on weakness?
I can’t look you in the eye and say “I’m hurt, I’m battered, I’m depleted, I’m lonely, I’m tired, I can’t keep going… insert your phrase of choice here” – It may be vulnerability, pride, ego, cultural, shame, resignation, or all the above, and eye contact will make that worse. If you are helping a man in a conversation, go against your instinct, break eye contact, heck opt for an activity that completely eliminates it except for a few moments and glances – Remember: men talk side by side.
Why the distracting activity? That one is simple, first this is the conversational lubricant – it gives you something to start the talking. It may not be the elephant in the room but he’ll get there*. It’s a break from facing the bitter reality. It is also an escape for when it gets too hard on us to open up. If someone is cornered they become very defensive. This is the absolute worst thing to do to anyone in a conversation, neither party will benefit here – but allowing for a way out will make them feel secure and at ease to talk. Chances are you will get more conversation this way. Give it time.
* Note that sometimes you may need to establish the activity over multiple times to build up to the required level of conversation. This isn’t a magic bullet.
Now they’ve relaxed, they feel secure and have opened up. Here is where you have to listen, understand their position and be a friend. Don’t ever let them feel that you are judging them – if you are, shame on you, especially for doing it at a moment of weakness. Resist the urge to jump in with an offer of help. Instead, empower them to try different approaches by asking if they have tried that approach and then help them formulate an action plan if that is warranted. Sometimes just let them vent off; some things get sorted out as one talks about it.
Remember that telling us we need to get help will hurt us after a lifetime of being taught that we shouldn’t need it – please be understanding. After all that may be why men talk side by side.
I’ve now helped you open the door, you now have the responsibility to be a good person, a good man, a decent human. Be genuine with your support, receive him with arms wide open and support him because chances are he has never had that support.
I wish men were taught how to deal with these issues. It is evident in the men’s mental health crisis that is just beginning to gain acknowledgement. I hope that we can all openly discuss our issues, allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and allow ourselves moments of weakness, moments where we don’t need to keep our head on a swivel and watch our backs. I also acknowledge that not everyone is there yet – we all have our journey.
Finally, a special thank you to my fishing buddy, my carpentry buddy, and my cousin who we work on our cars together. You always had my back, I will forever have yours.