Talkin’ ‘Bout Men Getting Up Close and Personal

Last night, I participated in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s daily show Life Matters, hosted by the ever-dynamic Natasha Mitchell on Radio National. The topic for the day was ‘Male Intimacy’.

Being on live radio is a pretty strange experience; I’ve only done it once before, on John Sutton‘s excellent, but now defunct, Ghost in the Machine on Eastside Radio in Sydney. (I see a pattern here: the only time I get to be on radio is on Australian stations. Clearly, I’m only a prophet in distant lands.) I don’t think I was the smoothest speaker ever as I repeatedly found refuge in verbal tics like ‘sort of’ and ‘actually’ again and again. Embarrassing stuff. (You can check out the audio link to see what I’m getting at; I go on at about the 20 minute mark but the whole show is worth a listen.)

Anyway, on to male intimacy. Natasha had me on to talk about cross-cultural differences, and so I talked a bit about how growing up in India meant being socialized into a domain of relationships with men where physical contact was relatively unproblematic: I often put my arms around my friend’s shoulders, inter-personal space was not negotiated rigorously, and physical contact was common. And as I noted on the show, I was warned–by those already resident in the US–to not expect such contact when I crossed the waters, and more to the point, to desist from such overt displays of friendship with any male friends that I might make in the US. Much of the content of those warnings was spot on; I found a male culture that set much store by the careful maintenance of a physical space between its members.

Of course, intimacy isn’t just about physical contact; it can be engendered by conversation, by shared activities. Here, interestingly enough, it has been clear to me for a while now that even in cultures where men are comfortable showing physical affection, they might not be so comfortable talking about matters close to the heart: sexual insecurity, feelings of masculine inadequacy (perhaps in the professional domain, perhaps in the physical or romantic) and so on.  And in this dimension, I found that Indian men were less inclined to open up about their insecurities: the social expectation of a certain kind of masculine stoicism seems to cut across cultural and national boundaries.

Men have evolved other rituals for bonding though: sports for instance, whether it is an outing to the stadium or the actual playing of a sport, or working out together at a gym (A pair of men bench-pressing together can generate an interestingly intimate, shared space!). I mentioned these on the show though I did not get a chance to talk about how these rituals can often be built on a foundation of misogyny and homophobia: the aggressive description of ‘weaker’ men as ‘pussies’ or ‘pansies’, for instance. This again, in my experience, cuts across boundaries: Indian men are just as likely to be misogynistic or homophobic as their American or Australian counterparts.

As someone who sets much store by his relationships with other men, I find this topic particularly fascinating and hope to think a bit more about it – aloud, in this space, somewhere down the line. In the meantime, comments welcome.

5 thoughts on “Talkin’ ‘Bout Men Getting Up Close and Personal

  1. Thanks Samir, I listened to the podcast last night and found your cross-cultural insights especially interesting.

    I consider myself to have really only had a few male friends in my nearly four decades on this planet – i.e. genuine friendships where we actually talked about stuff. I’ve always found it easier to make friends with females simply because they were more interested in speaking thoughtfully. Part of that is probably due to having spent most of my life in a rural area, and the macho thing can be very much a part of the landscape.

    I’ve played team cricket and touch football and I’d agree that homophobia (and perhaps to a lesser extent misogyny – in my experience anyway, probably because several of the teams in which I played were mixed sex) can be fostered in that environment. I also think that “homophobia” is perhaps used too loosely to describe what I think might be a more nuanced (or possibly a more simple) response; it seems to me that in many cases an “awkwardness” is elicited because of the confusion sporting intimacy creates – I think many males are unsure how to deal with the different rules of sporting intimacy as compared the usual norms. Not necessarily because of any internalised homophobia, but simply because there is such a difference between the rules.

    I have to say that I personally found the “war on the field, but have a beer together afterwards” paradigm very confusing. I’ve been slated on the pitch while batting, I’ve watched people push each other around and nearly come close to blows, and then go back to the shed and have a beer and a laugh together. One day when I couldn’t find a good length with the ball (and of course it was the first – and proved to be the only – A grade game I ever played), I hit the batsmen in the head a few times in the same over and when I apologised after drawing blood, was told in no uncertain terms by my team mates that I shouldn’t. I think that incongruous lack of civility adds to the confusion!

    1. Marshall,

      Thanks for the comment and sorry for the late reply. Great insights. I think we have had similar experiences though for different reasons. My female friends have been a great source of comfort for that very reason: providing thoughtful spaces for conversation and reflection.

      You might be right with your remarks about homophobia; indeed, homophobia itself might be informed by that same confusion.

      As for cricket, and the ‘leave it out on the paddock’ rule, your remarks suggest to me it is not as entrenched culturally as sledging’s apologists would have it. Certainly, when I played cricket in Sydney, many teams were regarded as ‘knobs’ for sledging excessively and we wouldn’t dream of having a beer with them after the game. The handshake was fine, but not a beer.

  2. Thankyou Samir, I listened to your interview on Life Matters and found you very insightful. Your comments about Indian men being close physically but not necessarily on an emotional level was not something i had considered before.

    I have male friends,very close male friends. We share freely and have an ‘understanding’ of one another, perhaps because we have had the same conditioning as males. It just feels different with a woman, as if more must be explained before it’s understood.

    In the coming months I will publish a book on men which demostrates how far we have come in the last twenty years. It is positive because the “mens’ story” is positive.

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