“Your next article comes out on November 19th, right?” My best friend asked.
“Yeah, wondering what to write about,” I replied on WhatsApp.
“Well, November 19th is International Men’s Day, so maybe something about that?”
I didn’t know it was going to be International Men’s Day. Now the question in my mind was: what could I possibly write about on that topic?
International Men’s Day is celebrated every year to “shine a spotlight on men who are making a positive difference and to raise awareness of issues that men face on a global scale.”
Issues such as mental health, toxic masculinity and the prevalence of male suicide.
I wondered how these issues could relate to my experience as a young Malayali male. And I came up with a hypothesis that might be completely off the mark …or something worth considering.
I was once in the passenger seat of a car, commandeering the playlist and consulting Google Maps as my friend Sam drove through town to pick up our friends Santosh and Jameel.
Jameel hopped in first, immediately complaining about my terrible music choice before approving of our plan to go for Shisha. The three of us were upbeat, talking about the long week we’d had, troubles at the office and tensions at home.
And then Santosh got in.
Something was off. He mumbled a quick hello before sinking into the darkness in the backseat as Sam steered the car towards the dimly lit road. He didn’t make small talk or even volunteer an opinion when I and Jameel began arguing about whether Google Maps or Waze was better.
Finally, when we got down at the Shisha parlour, I paused to ask Santosh a question that was at the edge of my mind. “Hey bro, everything good?”
He brightened up and a smile flashed across his face. “Yeah man, all good!”
It took me seven months to find out he’d just had a terrible break-up.
I’ve realized that many guys are like Santosh. They don’t talk about their emotional troubles with their guy friends. Until now, I’d never stopped to wonder why.
Because of some of the comments on Facebook and this website that I’ve received before, I need to stress that I’m not making a generalization. You might very well be a guy who talks for hours with your best bro about your latest break up. But even then, you’ve probably met some guys who are tight-lipped about such matters?
Yes, some people are more open with their feelings, and some aren’t. So naturally, the first time I heard about Santosh’s break up, I instantly assumed he was just shy about sharing his feelings. That’s a common trait that members of both genders share, right?
But then I found out that Santosh had confided in Anjali, a former classmate and lifelong friend of ours. And my immediate thought was: Why her?
Why did Santosh have a terrible confrontation with his girlfriend, cry bitter tears as the sun began to set, and then wait in the cold to get picked up by a Toyota Landcruiser carrying his three closest friends, only to laugh about forgettable memes, discuss the specs of the latest Nissan GT-R and end two hours of shisha …without ever unburdening himself?
Were Sam, Jameel, and I such terrible friends?
I guess that depends on how you describe a friendship. The four of us were “brothers”. Meaning if one of us was in trouble, the other three would swoop in to help. Sam was once stranded at a camp, 40 kilometres from the city. One phone call later Santosh was rolling out of his bed on Saturday morning, sleep-deprived after working overtime for the past week, ghost walking towards the kitchen for his morning coffee. Half an hour later he handed another cup of coffee to Sam as the relieved fellow climbed into his car.
So we were strong friends. We could lend each other money, talk to people we barely knew and were intimidated by just to pass along a resume, lie to parents and friends in order to keep a secret. We were proper friends.
And yet Santosh didn’t want to confide in us. Why?
Maybe because he didn’t know how to go about it. We were in our mid-20s when Santosh had his traumatic breakup. We had a decade of friendship, but also a decade of emotional conditioning. Looking back, I realized that we never stopped to talk about sensitive topics. Sure, we’d lament about the lack of girlfriends or lack of money or lack of excitement in our lives. But we never lingered over topics that were uncomfortable. We never dug deep beneath the surface.
I’ve told my guy friends that it’s frustrating to not find love. They’ve agreed. But I never got, nor did I ever accept, the chance to flesh out my deepest thoughts about the subject. I never sat down and told my three closest male friends that when I really like a girl, I begin to think that I have no chance of ever impressing her. Or that I subconsciously write off my chances at being attractive. Or that I, more often than not, cast other guys in the role of the boyfriend even though I’m the writer and producer of my love story. Simply because deep down I think that’s what is expected by everyone around me.
Are you able to say all those things to your buddies? Or does the conversation change to other topics, always skimming the surface, collecting collective opinions, till the glasses of tea or pack of cigarettes are over and everyone gets back into their cars and drives away?
I think some men do not possess the vocabulary or familiarity to communicate certain topics with their male friends. I don’t think it’s because each and every guy is brimming with toxic masculinity. We aren’t sporting plaid shirts and cutting down trees, too busy for “silly emotional” topics. Instead, I think a low yet steady level of toxic masculinity since puberty slowly morphed our behaviour and language, till finally a decade later, a close member of our group didn’t have the words nor the comfort required to express his emotions.
So when International Men’s Day tries to raise awareness about toxic masculinity, it’s not just the moustache curling, tight-lipped, chauvinistic and sexist men who need to wake up. Even guys like me who believe in gender equality and elimination of strict gender roles need to improve ourselves.
We need to be able to create a language that allows us to share our feelings. It will be difficult at first because the instinct will be to laugh and joke and brush it all away. But sometimes guys need to be reminded that being “stoic” or “strong-willed” is not the same as ignoring your thoughts and feelings. It took me a while to understand that.
And then there is the issue of Anjali. The girl in whom Santosh was able to confide his feelings. Many months later I finally asked him about it. “What made you tell her what you were feeling, bro? What did she do that we didn’t?”
He looked at me and realized it wasn’t a question of jealousy. I genuinely wanted to understand. Which made him reflect on something that he’d taken for granted.
“I – I don’t know for sure. It’s just…the dynamic, I guess? I would have these long chats with her. And she wanted to know how I was feeling, about the day or the week. And she wasn’t just asking, you know? She actually expected an answer.”
I smiled, thinking of the way I’d greeted him twenty minutes ago when we met up at the cafe.
“Sup, man? How’s it going?”
“All good bro. All good!”
It had become this almost meaningless greeting. Like when cashiers wish you, “Have a nice day!” at the end of the interaction.
But with Anjali, Santosh had been able to actually respond. Sure, at first it was probably just a few words. “My day was good, a little boring though.” But over time, his vocabulary increased. With us, he’d say his day was “pissing off”, or “messed up.” With her, he could say, “I felt humiliated because my boss insulted me in front of everyone, and the worst part is, I thought I deserved it. I hate my job.”
Jameel joined the conversation at this point and asked us what we were talking about. After I filled him in, he chuckled and waved his hand dismissively. “That’s expected, man! I mean, girls are like that. They focus a lot on the feelings and emotions aspect. So obviously guys will like to talk about that stuff with them.”
I wanted to argue with him. I wanted to tell him that there’s no reason why women should have a monopoly over emotions, that men could be just as good at listening, that his words were just another sign of toxic masculinity.
But I didn’t. Because I didn’t think he would understand.
About a year later, the four of us were in different parts of the world. I heard from Sam one day that Jameel was depressed.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He lost his job, and he’s been struggling with unemployment for almost 8 months.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Over the past year, I’d been exchanging occasional messages with Jameel, primarily YouTube movie trailers and articles. I didn’t know things were this bad for the guy.
“I don’t know the whole story,” Sam added. “I just heard about this from Priya.”
I thought about how Jameel had dismissed emotional discussions before. How he felt that women were better suited to such talks and that guys didn’t need to bother.
I wish I could tell him that everybody hurts. Everybody cries. And men don’t have to keep aside their troublesome thoughts when interacting with other men. And men don’t have to share them only with women who “are the emotional kind”. In the case of Jameel, it led to several months of stress and unhappiness. But in other cases, the outcomes are far more tragic.
So this International Men’s Day, I’m reminded to be a better friend to the men in my life. To let them know I’m there for them if they want to talk about something that doesn’t end with a punchline or a jovial punch on the shoulder. To let them know that even I’m just learning to master the language we’d ignored for most of our lives. This International Men’s Day, I hope our lives can start becoming a little less toxic.