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.