Men and Intimacy, Physical and Conversational

by Samir Chopra

ScreenHunter_2988 Mar. 12 09.23A couple of years ago, I participated in a radio discussion on ‘Male Intimacy,’ hosted by Natasha Mitchell on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s show Life Matters. Natasha had invited me on to offer the ‘alternative perspective’ of an immigrant who had lived in India, the US, and briefly, in Australia. (Audio is available; I go on at the 20 minute mark; the whole show is worth a listen.)

While on air, when speaking about the cross-cultural differences in male intimacy I had experienced in my three ‘homes,’ I noted that growing up in India meant being socialized in a domain of relationships with men where physical contact was relatively unproblematic: I put my arms around my male friends’ shoulders, did not rigorously negotiate inter-personal physical space, and demonstrated affection and companionship through a variety of physical gestures—including hugs. (Avuncular affection almost always took these forms.) As the time approached for my move to the US, I was warned—by those Indians who had preceded me and were now already resident in the US—to not expect such ‘intimate’ contact when I crossed the waters, to desist from such overt displays of friendship and affection in my relationships with American men. Those warnings spoke to a culture that set much store by the careful maintenance of a physical and emotional space between its male members; ‘keep your distance’ applied to many dimensions of social interactions. I took these warnings to heart. There was no reason to disbelieve them; moreover, I was keen to ‘fit in,’ to not ‘stick out,’ to not take the risk of being called a ‘homo’ or a ‘fag’—as seemed to be the fate of those who transgressed in this domain. This was the 1980s; America seemed—from a distance—to be suffering a national crisis of masculine insecurity. I suffered from my own variant of it.

So the manner of my relationships with men changed once I moved to the US; besides the obvious psychosocial distance pertaining to matters of familial and filial structure, and political and cultural tastes and inclinations, I found men in my new home structured and conducted their relationships and friendships with each other quite differently. American men were not physically demonstrative in their claims of friendship; they did not hug their male friends; they did not put arms around male friends; they carefully established the requisite physical space between themselves and their friends. Immigration induced many changes in the qualitative and quantitative nature of my personal and social relationships with men and women alike; the parameters of male relationships in my new home denied me a very particular—and much desired when missed—kind of emotional sustenance.

(Unsurprisingly alcohol resulted in a loosening of such inhibitions on physical demonstrativeness; once sufficient alcohol had been imbibed men began to hug, put their arms around each other, and perhaps even break into song. This behavior was all the more remarkable for the reticence that had preceded it; the latent homophobia and chronic masculine insecurity that seemed to surround any overt demonstration of affection between men made sure that any such ‘intimate’ behavior was tightly circumscribed. I began drinking more heavily in my life in the US; one explanation for this was the greater stress I experienced as an international student and immigrant and my need to establish my masculinity—brown men can drink white men under the table, don’t you worry—but also because I noticed that when my friends and I were drunk, we were often ‘nicer’ to each other.)

Intimacy isn’t just about physical contact, of course; it has multiple dimensions. There is, for instance, conversational intimacy where we draw ‘close’ to another human being by becoming vulnerable in their presence, by revealing our insecurities, doubts, and fears in the confessional mode. These dimensions of intimacy need not co-exist; even in cultures where men are comfortable showing physical affection to their friends and romantic partners, they might not be so when talking about matters ‘close to the heart:’ sexual insecurity, feelings of masculine inadequacy in professional, physical, or romantic domains. Even physically demonstrative men—like those I had known in India or the rare exceptions I met in the US—were often not inclined to grant access to their insecurities via conversation: the social expectation of masculine stoicism seemed to cut across cultural and national boundaries. My male Indian friends had been physically demonstrative; they had not necessarily provided emotional resources in conversations centered in the romantic domain. Indeed, when it came to conversation about ‘intimate matters’ good ‘talkers’ were easier to find among American men. (If I was to continue peddling in superficial generalities, I would say Catholic and Jewish men were the most accessible of all. Supposed clichés about the emotionally reticent WASP male were not lacking in their own particular truth.)

As such, as I grew into adulthood, when I sought intimacy, I sought out the wisdom and conversation of my women friends; I thought the intimate spaces generated by such conversation would be an ideal venue for me to encounter and understand a woman’s perspective to help illustrate some personal predicament of mine; all too many of my male friends took refuge in impatient—sometimes jokey, sometimes skeptical, sometimes brusque, possibly nervous—dismissals of various psychological and emotional dimensions that complicated personal relationships. An intimate conversational space allowed for an encounter with these dimensions; men, more often than not, were not able to generate one such through their conversations, reluctant as they were to approach some domains of emotional ‘exposure.’ My male friends were more physically ‘withdrawn’ and conversationally, comfortably ensconced in a psychological ‘safe space’ from which they were not willing to venture out. Intimacy was a zone of vulnerability, of weakness, of letting the guard down and thus, letting someone in, perhaps to wreak all manner of emotional and psychic destruction. This was the case whether dealing with a male friend or a female romantic partner.

Of course, conversations with my female friends did not just grant me an ‘insider’s perspective’ or access to an otherwise off-limits domain; rather, the intimate space generated by close, frank, and sharing conversation with my women friends was comforting and psychically soothing itself. My women friends, needless to say, were more physically demonstrative; hugs and kisses were more readily found in my interactions with them. (A persistent therapist might have found some grounding of this need of mine in the losses of my parents by the time I was twenty-six; my relationships with my women friends had begun to provide a measure of sympathetic caring for which my need had only grown greater. I was not just an immigrant missing home and family; I was a bereaved one.)

In the face of male reticence, and the undeniable need for ‘contact’ of some kind or the other, men have evolved rituals for ‘bonding’, for perhaps even generating intimacy with each other: an outing to a sports stadium, the actual playing of a sport, working out together at a gym, and of course, consuming alcohol. A pair of men bench-pressing together, all the while ‘shooting the shit’ between ‘reps,’ can generate an interestingly intimate, shared space. Here, and in the ‘locker-room,’ I found that men talked a great deal; some of the flavor of this talk was, unsurprisingly for a patriarchal and sexist culture (like most other cultures), misogynistic, sexist, often reeking of sexual bravado. Yet other components of it were and are surprisingly intimate: men talk about difficulties at work, problems raising kids, their anxieties about appearances and bodily image etc. The volubility and loquaciousness of these conversations speak to a felt need to be heard, to speak, to request a nod or an affirmation or a sounding out. Men want to talk; they want to be heard; they want to be reassured; they’ve just been told it’s a mistake, a sign of weakness, of ‘feminine’ dependency to do so; they don’t want to be ‘pussies,’ they want to ‘man up’ and ‘deal with it.’

Sometimes life changes push men toward intimacy with each other. As a newly minted father of some five years, I’ve noticed conversations with fathers brings forth a dimension of vulnerability and need not always present in conversations about relationships with romantic or sexual partners. Perhaps age, perhaps the demands of an insistent human being, one considerably less ‘powerful’ than them has ‘mellowed’ out my friends, and broken down previous barriers of reticence and emotional guardedness. Fatherhood also often entails a crisis in the romantic and intimate component of a relationship with one’s partner, and it may be that men, faced with this sort of dual challenge, finally find their way into the figurative ‘arms’ of their male brethren. If not into a hug, then at least into a conversational space where they are willing to hold forth about what ails them in the psychic dimension.

In India, of course, while men might share physical gestures of affection with their male friends in public, they are extremely unlikely to do so with their women friends or romantic partners. Public displays of affection between men and women are still rare in India, still likely to evoke stares, giggles, a raised eyebrow, sometimes verbal disapproval or catcalls and the local, rough equivalent of ‘get a room.’ This lack of physical demonstrativeness with women in public spaces may even affect their ability to ‘open up’ to a woman and share affection even in closed, private spaces. Being more open to physical displays of friendly affection with men does not make Indian men more likely to open up in conversation–whether with men or women–about their insecurities or anxieties: stoicism still comes out ahead. Here, physical affection substitutes for conversational intimacy.

By contrast, even though men in the ‘West’ do not openly show affection to each other they often do so with women; public displays of affection between men and women are the norm, a socially accepted feature of mixed-sex relationships. We may surmise that such physical demonstrativeness leaves them better equipped to ‘drop their guard’ with their women friends and romantic partners and ‘open up’ to them in the course of conversation. But the greater social acceptance and tolerance of public intimacy between men and women in ‘the West’ does not necessarily translate into greater intimacy with women especially when it comes to a similar unburdening of the soul in conversation. Women in the West still find their male partners reticent and unwilling to open up; the ‘boys don’t cry or navel-gaze or revel in existential angst with their partners’ model still prevails. True, there is far more social conversation—in movies, novels, plays, blogs—about these matters, but little of that translates back into an open, frank, conversation between men and women in a shared, private space. It still remains easier to talk about anxiety and insecurity in the abstract; it still remains easier for men to be physically demonstrative with women in public than to allow access to the sanctum sanctorum of raw need and fearful hope in private. (Men, of course, are not shy about displaying their anger at their female partners—in public or private; at least in this dimension, there is no shortage of a frank display of emotion, even if in a damaging and destructive way.)

These admittedly imprecise and incomplete observations suggest to me public and private intimacies—or physical and conversational intimacies—are orthogonal to each other: the presence or absence of one does not seem to provide conclusive evidence about the presence or absence of the other. From the outside, looking in, women do a better job of generating intimacy than men, and their ability to do so does not correlate in any meaningful way with the presence of public displays of intimacy. Women are more comfortable with physical intimacy as well, both in India and the US; hugs and kisses and other kinds of physical contact often mark their relationships with other women, and the conversational spaces women are able to generate in each other’s company has almost legendary status—even though in typically sexist fashion, men dismiss this as mere gossip and idle chatter. Perhaps we are envious.

None of the considerations I have raised here discount the friendships men form with each other; many of these are strong, resilient, and rest on durable foundations of shared experience and values; they generate their own kind of intimacy, perhaps a silent varietal that consists of the simple belief that your friend will ‘have your back’ when you need it. Men set great store by this knowledge; male military veterans describe this mutual dependency and expectation as their strongest bond, the most acute motivator in the performance of their often onerous duties. Still, the increasing attention paid to the highly damaging physical and emotional isolation that men suffer—because of the lack of physical intimacy in their lives–shows that we should start to take better care of each other; by overcoming our own reticence, by learning from women, by bringing up our sons in a manner that lets them not incur the same costs we did. The price we pay for this lack of intimacy in our lives is onerous; we bring up our sons to be emotionally stunted creatures, misogynist and sexist; we descend into depression and substance abuse and other self-harms, sometimes deadly; our repressed desires find expression in anger and violence, directed against others, at ourselves.

The worst kept secret about a patriarchal culture is that it hurts men too. By actively dismantling its many components men will hopefully be able to experience many moral and psychological goods denied them thus far; their own complicity in the current state of affairs, and the costs they have incurred, should serve as adequate motivation to begin this task in earnest.