Following on from the recent ‘Man and His Emotions’ series of articles, Calum and I decided to delve deeper into the subject to find out just what people thought about it. We conducted a two-pronged study, Calum ran the focus group, whilst I formulated the survey and analysed the results. On behalf of Calum and myself, I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who took part in the study and made this possible, you have all been a great help.
Focus Group – Calum
I sat down with seven friends and acquaintances (Fabian, Martin, Kaifer, Michael, Joey, Stuart and Chris) who agreed to form a focus group, which aimed to discuss the subject of male emotion, and why society exerts a certain amount of pressure on men to appear infallible. Ages were 25, 19, 21, 26, 25, 24 and 25. Three of the participants were black, three were of mixed parentage (white and black and Anglo-Indian) and one was white.
Having established in two previous studies (Man and His Emotions Part I and Man and His Emotions Part II) that an inability to find someone to confide in is undeniably a contributory factor in the development of depression, and other mental health related issues. I began with the most pertinent question: Whom do you turn to when you are struggling with a serious issue?
Five members of the group stated that, initially, they would turn to no one. In fact both Michael and Fabian unwittingly replicated each others answers, declaring “I don’t really turn to anyone I try to deal with issues internally” and “it depends on how serious the issue is, most of the time I keep it to myself and deal with it internally”.
Only Chris and Kaifer broke rank to offer the view that they considered their mother and sister respectively to be accommodating confidantes “Either my mother or my sister depending on the issue”. Chris concurred, “my mum nearly all the time, depending what it is, and then sometimes my sister”. Their words adding credence to the popular notion that women are better versed in the practice of offering emotional support than men.
I next asked: If you went to your friends, how much help do you feel they would really be able to provide? As I’d noted that, although the initial reaction from most of the participants was to dismiss external help, none claimed they would be completely unaccepting of it. However most acknowledged it would perhaps only stretch to token sympathy or mild reassurance.
Martin, the youngest member of the group, elected to speak first, “I think they would try and be there for me whatever the circumstances, and, really just knowing that is enough to help me feel better”. Joey agreed, “I feel they’d be able to help me pave over a few cracks, or help me temporarily feel better. But I know I’d really have to deal with any issue on my own”.
Although all conceded that some form of help would be available from close friends, I was left with the impression that few would seek it out, owing to a feeling that it would be inadequate. Stuart did little to disprove this theory, “I wouldn’t expect much. Some friends, I would almost expect nothing from…” however he added that a lack of openness was to blame, “I think that you can be surprised by opening up to friends, you often find they’ve had similar experiences or know another friend that has. The truth is we aren’t open enough and so don’t know the hardships we’ve been through and vice versa and everybody ends up feeling alone with they’re problems. Knowing that somebody else has had the same experience is helpful, and could even take the edge off of your issue”
If a lack of openness was to blame for why so few of those present felt able to turn to friends for help, (and also why they felt there friends were ill equipped to provide effective and long term support,) it made sense to pinpoint where this deficiency came from. Had it been learnt, or even inherited?
I asked the group: Do you feel your Dad is emotionally responsive and equipped to deal with any issues you might have? The response was alarming, and not confined to a portion of the congregation, it was a general feeling held by all. However, Michael shared the most pejorative verdict of all, “No he’s not. Can’t remember the last time he’s expressed anything of the sort…it would be awkward, that role is alien to him”.
Sadly conversation flowed in this vein, Joey tempered his admission with the acknowledgement that although he felt his dad“ wasn’t emotionally responsive in any way”, he was “excellent in other ways”.
Fabian: “My dad isn’t really emotional; he would try and help me with my issues but he’s not emotionally responsive”, and Chris: “Not really, while I know he cares big time about me, he’s not equipped to give any good responses, and that only leads to frustration. So I don’t seek him out to be emotionally responsive”, both espoused similar sentiments.
They were not all damning indictments. Almost all of the group admitted that, although they would prefer it if there fathers were emotionally available, they were sensitive to the fact that various dynamics came into play that made this a difficult role for them to fulfill. Whether it was the result of an austere upbringing, or neglecting to nurture that type relationship when their sons were younger. Stuart acknowledged something we all learn as we mature; “The truth is parents are just people, my Dad was 33 when he had his first kid and before that he was just some idiot guy like me. Unfortunately the openness of a father is dependent on the openness of him as a person”.
Without having to express it, it was clear that everyone in attendance knew that they were being entrusted with the responsibility for bringing about a much-needed change in relations between men. A real litmus test in this regard is the response to another man breaking down in tears in front of you. Is it ok for a close male friend to cry in front of you? Would this affect the way you perceived him?
All seven members of the focus group agreed that crying was perfectly fine. Chris was particularly vocal, asserting that, “It definitely is OK, and I wouldn’t think any less of him unless I thought it was really unwarranted” Joey added that it was both entirely necessary and also healthy, “of course a close male friend should cry, emotions need to be released after all”.
Stuart offered a typically concise and candid appraisal on the subject, “Men cry, you have a full spectrum of emotion for a reason; why not experience it? When you cry in front of somebody, it’s an intimate thing, you’re laid out, you’re pure emotion and that’s undeniable…it breaks down the separateness that we create.”
Michael acknowledged this viewpoint and also sought to add that friends should feel free and able to exist and express themselves free of judgement, “If he has good reason to, then its not up to me to judge if it’s OK for him to cry or not. And no, I wouldn’t look at him differently, definitely not. That’s asinine. We are only human after all, every man has his breaking point.”
So, crying (for a good enough reason) was not only permitted, but would also deepen a well of existent respect and serve to bond us further. That’s all we can hope for. A generation of men who don’t feel the need to wrestle with the concept of revealing what they are thinking and feeling without fear or judgement.
Having sufficiently explored the interactions between men I turned our attentions to the relationships we form with women, in an attempt to examine what impact they have on our ability to be emotionally expressive.
Women have the potential to make or break a man’s confidence; we place greater importance in their opinions of us than we do those of other men. Due to this, they can be incredibly detrimental to our emotional and psychological wellness. I wonder aloud whether or not women are aware of this, by posing the question: Do you feel women encourage men to reveal less of themselves emotionally than they’d like to?
The responses were varied and displayed a clear divide. Half of the group felt that women encouraged men to be emotionally accessible. “Negative, I think it’s more fellow men than women as I think phases like ‘man up’ and ‘be a man’ actually come from men. Having said that all women are different, I know women on both ends of that scale”, was Chris’ interpretation of the issue.
Stuart agreed, “In my experience, no. I think women dig it to an extent. I know women that find dudes crying a major turn off, it is in an evolutionary, cave man way, perhaps perceived as a sign of weakness and vulnerability” , and also broke into a theory about masculinity being closely connected with emotion I’m saying what if it is a strength. I’ve said this before, but there’s something that shows that you as a man are in fact über masculine if you display emotion…to display emotion is to reject others opinions, which aren’t even their own, they’re society’s.”
Michael, (the only member of the focus group in a relationship) summed up the opinion of those who believed women were not responsible for a culture of emotional repression in men. “Some women do, some women don’t. People, not just women, tend to associate emotion with weakness. Inside of a relationship, women tend to want their man to be emotionally open, outside of one, not so much. Again though, everyone has a different tolerance of it.”
Though these three were in agreement, there words were hardly a ringing endorsement, and came loaded with caveats.
The rest of the participants were absolute in their belief that the perception women had of them directly affected how honest an account they were able to give of themselves. Kaifer shared his thoughts, “I believe women value their emotional presence more than men. They advocate the emotive man, unless this emotion overwhelms their own emotional input. They don’t discourage it, but they put up subtle boundaries”. Joey agreed, and hypothesised on a reason for this, “women do like the idea of men being ‘men’. Plus, some women are often overwhelmed by their emotions, maybe they look to men to balance them out?”
Martin was unswerving in his outlook. “Yes they do encourage men to be less emotional, knowingly. They promote the idea of men being solid providers, with minimal cues of love and affection. Maintaining that status quo of a man needing to be masculine is more important to them than his emotions.”
All agreed that, not only emotionally but also generally, they had to perform to a certain standard across the board. And yet were completely uncertain of where the demands and expectations began and ended. Overall though the sentiment gleaned from these three was that their personalities were being circumscribed at the behest of women.
It’s little wonder then that many young men act as if they’re something they are not. This disassociation with their essential selves perhaps feeds into the myriad other issues that stop young men from being emotionally honest.
The fact that seven individuals – some of whom had never met – decided to take part in this focus group was in itself tremendously encouraging. I knew from the outside that everyone was willing to contribute positively to bringing about change in the way male emotion was perceived. Evidence of this shift in attitude was provided by the discussion centred on crying. Though this isn’t the only barometer by which I could have measured change, it is telling that seven men agreed that it was wholly unacceptable. Had we sat men twice our age down I don’t know that the answers would have been the same.
In conclusion I was able to learn that we are a generation in transition, at this point unable to step out from the shadows of our emotionally vacant fathers as convincingly as we’d like, but more than able, and perhaps more importantly, willing to do so.
We recognise the fallacy in the old paradigm and have no desire to cling to it, recognising that its incredibly damaging to ourselves, and those around us. However, we need assistance, both from each other and from women. We need to feel as if we are equally entitled to be emotional without fear of castigation or judgement from the opposite sex. This perhaps is the key. We need to feel safe in the knowledge that our social standing and perceived masculinity will not be impacted upon should we need to vent or emote. Only when this safety net has been established will our children feel confident enough to fulfil the aspirations that we are keen to realise now.
Online Survey – Jesse
I spoke to 158 people via an anonymous survey, with quite an even split across both genders; 80 males and 78 females responded. I also split the survey into two separate parts, in order to find out how men feel about emotions and how women feel about men expressing emotions.
The first question I posed to men was whether they felt there was a certain amount of societal pressure on men to appear infallible; 85% of men said yes, whilst 15% evidently said no. Subsequently, 78% of men then went to agree that women also contribute to this culture of emotional repression. This isn’t surprising in the least bit, as there is an ideal that a ‘real man’ must be strong and impervious to emotional breakdown. Terms such as ‘man up’ as harmless as they may seem, they do however, contribute to this culture in a subtle way.
The role a father plays in his son’s life has a huge influence on his ability to deal with emotions. Not only will a father’s ability to handle his own emotions affect his son’s life but it will have an impact on how the son interacts with others, potentially his own children. 17% of our men said that their father is always emotionally responsive, whilst 43% answered sometimes, 26% rarely and 15% never. The women who responded to the identical question told us that only 7% feel that their father is always emotionally responsive, 40% answered sometimes, 35% rarely and 18% never. The response isn’t as discouraging as first envisaged, however, 69% of our men did feel that their father’s upbringing played a role in their ability to be emotionally responsive and empathetic. In contrast, 75% of our women felt that the sentiment was true. There isn’t enough disparity in the two sets of results we received from both genders to suggest that fathers are more emotionally available to their sons than they are their daughters. However, it is fair to conclude that fathers do need to be more emotionally available to their children.
Bereavement is a situation that can cause the coldest of hearts to thaw so you’d be forgiven for crying, if that were the case. However, 85% of men said there were other situations in which it was okay to shed a tear; 95% of women agreed. We have all heard the notion that ‘men shouldn’t cry’ but men themselves have told us it is okay to do so, in situations other than bereavement.
How men deal with emotion when in the company of other men is a sensitive issue,we are taught and conditioned to believe that this is far from okay in these situations. However, 83% of our men said that they would not think less of any of their male brethren were they to break down in front of them. Could it be, that many men have wanted to do so but the fear of negative reactions has prevented them from doing so? The same question was put to our female respondents, not at all surprising but 93% of our female respondents agreed with the sentiment.
In light of feminism and sexism being a prominent topic within the media and wider society at the moment, I thought it would be interesting to examine whether the treatment of women would change if men were able to express their emotions freely. 59% of our men felt that attitudes towards women were likely to change if this was the case, whilst 70% of our women agreed. This shows, that in essence many men feel that the culture of sexism could be down to societal and gender rules, as well as outright ignorance. It’s difficult to pencil out where this stems from without asking as to why people feel this way, nevertheless, it is encouraging to know that this is the case.
Our relationships with the opposite sex say a lot about who we are as a person, and so does the way we interact with them. We sometimes joke about women and their ‘work husbands’ because of the way those men are there for women emotionally The results show that this is what women want their men to be, emotionally there for women. 80% of our women feel that men should be able to outwardly express a wider range of emotions more. Of those in relationships, 25% said their male partner always confides in them, whilst 59% said sometimes, 18% rarely and 5% never. Of those who are not in relationships, 64% said that they would like their male partner to always confide in them, with 36% saying they would like that to happen sometimes. If men were able to be more open with their women emotionally, is it fair to say that we would be more understanding of what our female partner is feeling? It is, as 68% of women feel that if a man is in touch with his own emotions, he is likely to be more emotionally responsive and empathetic towards his other half. This is called emotional intelligence and one of its facets is having the ability to read the emotions of people around you. It wouldn’t be a wild assumption to say that couples that can freely talk about how they feel would fare much better than those that don’t.
It’s clear that the results from both the focus group and survey are harmonious in a way that they strengthen our original theories. For example, those who took part in the focus group, believed that breaking down or crying in front of male peers should not attract indignation. This was further backed up by the results from the survey, where 85% of the men who took part solidified this very notion. Society has long kept us shackled in the chains of expectations and customs, some of which have hindered our progression as a wider community. The better part of 160 people are telling us men, that it is okay for us to cry and that it serves us better if we tell our partners just how much we really love them. As a specie, it is our emotional capacity that has allowed us to do some of the greatest things in existence, why hinder this for the sake of what society deems appropriate? The very fact that I’m aware of my own shortcomings in regards to expressing my own emotions means that I know what work needs to be done. This means that I no longer have to fit the mold of society’s image of a ‘man’ and I can be free to be what it is I want to be. The work I am doing now is for later in life, so that when they need to confide in me, my children and my future partner will not have any fears doing so.
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