In Praise of Male Friendship
Men have fewer friends than ever. Be it in the US or the UK, male social circles have been shrinking. Millions of British men have no close friends at all. Three decades ago, more than 50% of American men claimed to have at least six close friends. Now that number has been halved.
How sad! That this happens in a time where singlehood and childlessness have grown more common only makes it more so. We could talk about the health risks of loneliness, or the increased danger of suicide, but what strikes me is the sadness — the long, empty silence, irreducible to data.
I’m by no means some sort of crazed social animal, careering from one party to another like a veritable pinball of popularity. My Dunbar’s number is filled up with contributors to The Critic. Still, I hate to think what existence would be like without the friends I do have.
Take laughter. When was the last time you laughed alone? I remember doing it once, last week, because it struck me as so unusual that I had to clarify to someone that when I had written “lol” I had actually lol’d. (May God strike me down for my dishonesty but since then I have written “lol” numerous times without so much as a smirk.) On the other hand, when I met some friends at the weekend I laughed at least twenty times. How silent life would feel without them — humour never being enriched for being shared.
Modern culture sighs with wistfulness for the idea of male camaraderie. Why is The Sopranos still so popular? Well, for a lot of reasons, but one is that men enjoy the idea of hanging out all day with their friends, whether or not it happens to involve executing rats and sleeping with goomahs. I think the popularity of grime and drill music among young men also has something to do with misdirected enthusiasm for the concept of tight-knit friendship groups.
We all know the most popular explanation for the decline in male friendship. Vox comments:
We ... tend to socialize young boys in particular to hide their vulnerabilities and value toughness and stoicism over emotional sensitivity and connection.
I think there is something to be said for stoicism — but even if I’m wrong, why would this lead to a decline? Have men and boys become more liable to value toughness and stoicism over emotional sensitivity and connection? I doubt that.
Vox also assumes that it means something that men “tell their friends they love them” less than women. 49% of women told a friend they loved them in the past week, they suggest, compared to 25% of men. Why would I tell my friends I love them every week? It means a lot more if I do it on special occasions. I wouldn’t appreciate a fine whiskey as much if I drank it every day.
Yes, male friendships can involve more rude jokes than emotional divulgence but that can — can — make the latter experience more meaningful. Bourgeois progressives of the Vox variety simply think that men should be a lot more like women — forgetting, as Will Solfiac has written, that women have their own sad and serious problems.
Yet it would be too easy to claim that men don’t lean into the Ron Swanson stereotype sometimes. One viral tweet from 2023 described the “ultimate male friendship” as being one in which you play a lot of golf and never talk. What are we all? Bank managers from the 1930s?
Yes, that really is unhealthy. Granted, sometimes less is more when it comes to speech. When my mum died, my close friend came to visit me and said, “Ben, I was thinking of what to say to make you feel better — and I’ve got nothing to say.” But it was honesty that made this moving, not taciturnity. The idea that men have enormous reserves of silent understanding is itself drippily sentimental.
The annoying “all men need therapy” meme has legs because a lot of us don’t talk enough with friends — and when I say “talk” I don’t mean tearily declaring love for one another — hey, unless the moment strikes you — but enjoying the catharsis of a problem shared, and the reassurance of it mattering beyond one’s head, and the assistance of an additional perspective. This all matters, and we shouldn’t meme ourselves into imagining otherwise because it might seem embarrassing or be burdensome. Friendship is friendship because we can be more vulnerable than we might be with Eric from accounts.
What the Voxes of this world tend to ignore about male friendships, though, is how many fewer chances we have to create them than we might have done in previous decades. Pubs are closing. Clubs are disappearing. Churches are emptying. The state-imposed isolation of the pandemic has had lingering effects — with female friendships suffering as well as male friendships. Lock people up and you can’t expect some of them not to stick to the sofa.
Official policy has had some role to play in this, then (with lockdowns being most obvious, though one could also reference attempts to minimise alcohol consumption). But more insidious societal factors have probably been influential too — the strained formality of office life, say, and the short-term pleasures of television and online media, and the parasocial aspects of podcasts and streaming. (I have nothing against online media — I’m creating it now — but it can be a plaster that hides an infection.)
There is no top-down solution here. Imagine the government trying to encourage friendship. Big “#MAKESOMEMATES” billboards would be plastered around the London Underground, and Ant and Dec would be on TV to talk about “checking in” with one another. I’m also suspicious of far left attempts to cultivate pro-social attitudes, which often seem to assume that we should be trying to make friends with everyone. Witness Malcolm Harris of “Occupy Wall Street” fame suggesting that it is good to play music through loudspeakers in enclosed public spaces because “headphones are antisocial”.
Still, we have to start somewhere. We stayed at home to stop the spread of COVID, and we’ll have to leave again to stop the spread of alienation. (Not all of us, of course. I do appreciate that there are genuine introverts whose idea of Hell on Earth is being dragooned into some sort of unofficial nationwide team bonding exercise. It’s fine to like your own space.) The convenience and cost-effectiveness of Netflix and a six pack have been hard to abandon since the pandemic ended, but more of us have to leave them or we’ll find ghost towns once we actually go outside.
What else can I offer as advice? (As an expert of friendship as well as foreign policy, philosophy, nuclear physics et cetera.) One advantage women have over men, I think — and I’m of course speaking in generalisations here — is feeling more inclined towards getting in touch with their friends about nothing in particular. It’s a necessary part of a friendship. You can lose contact with someone for so long because you have nothing special to talk about that when that special something does emerge, it feels awkward to be getting in touch.
The next thought applies to women as well as men — as suggested above, I doubt that women tend to have a surplus of good friendships — but if we are going to make friends online then it rarely hurts to meet them in real life as well. (I say “rarely” because I did see the tale of two extremely online people who abruptly moved in together, and I’m sure I don’t need to spell out whether or not that ended blissfully.) I don’t do it as much as I’d like, because I live in Upper Silesia, but I’ve never regretted it.
A final note — as much as I’ve been writing about male friendships and female friendships, I’m not suggesting that men and women can’t be friends with one another as well. It might be somewhat rarer, because of average differences in tastes and traits, but averages are averages. Hey, it worked for Jerry and Elaine in Seinfeld — and what sitcom portrayed a healthier group of friends than Seinfeld?
Friendship might not be the meaning of life but for most of us it is essential to the meaning of life. Our families, and our ambitions, and our dreams could not be sustained without the joys and challenges of spending time with friends, which helps us to grow as people and makes growing feel worthwhile.