As the song goes, “Look what we've done to the old mother tongue, it's a crime the way we've misused it”; and, seemingly, regardless of the arena in which we speak, whether that be sex, health, drugs, or ways of life, it can be tough to plough through the thick dough that is the English language.
Now, whether or not you agree with the earnest brilliance of Eric Bogle, who humorously highlights the fluidity of language and how drastically it can change over the years, he does suggest that we’ve strangled, mangled, frangled and abused language too.
Whilst I reckon he has a point, our language must grow, develop, and evolve just like people, society, and cultures do. Besides, blending and compounding words is fun and lets us be more expressive. However, can our “harmless” language actually be harmful?
Language is powerful and can be used to shape the world itself; it is used to inform and misinform, to rally crowds (for good and bad), to promote equality and inequality, incite violence or advance peace, start wars or overthrow empires, to think about others in a certain way; the list of the powerful results of language and how we act on it is huge. Therefore politically correct speech has its place as it can help to inform, rally and promote for the better. However, sometimes, some terms get overlooked or ignored.
Have you noticed the numerous clever slang words starting with “man-” (e.g., man-bag, man-cave, manscaping, respectively defined as a male purse, sanctuary, body-hair trimming) that have being doing the rounds a while now? Indeed numerous such words have been repeated and impacted on society so much that they have become legitimate words in various dictionaries (e.g., manspreading) and are often used to apply humour to many maddening and malicious situations like men talking or walking or being sick or, like, you know, sitting.
The trick goes like this: get an already accepted word, “cleverly” add or incorporate the prefix “man-” and bingo you have a new blended word that reflects poorly on men. Typically, these words suggest that the man in question is being impolite, offensive, aggressive, sexist, vain, weak, childish, or whatever.
Unfortunately, the misandry associated with these words is often overlooked. It seems to me that many blended words can dismiss and undermine many men for being male; it’s as if men are being slammed or ridiculed just for being male—now that is my preferred definition of “manslamming”.
Shape of Words to Come
Whilst I generally shy away from anything political, especially when we are told what “correctness” is, I do appreciate that words shape how we see our world; this in turn shapes us. The behaviourists call this Rule Governed Behaviour whereby the rules we or others make about things influences how we respond to these things. So if we hear of or believe a thing to be negative we are more likely to feel negative about that thing. Indeed, sometimes when we hear a thing enough times we’ll start believing it; the sad and common example is if you tell someone enough times that they are stupid or worthless they’ll believe it and then see their world from a “stupid me” or “worthless me” point of view.
It’s peculiar how society accepts derogatory language against a certain cohort of society (in this case men) and would denounce such language if it was designed and used for another cohort?
Consider any of the “man-” words above or any other “man-” words you might know. Ok. Would it be acceptable or nice to replace “man-” with a different word that refers to someone’s religious beliefs, sexuality, country of origin, etc. I suspect not: It might even be illegal (good! that’s not the “equality” I want to see). But it seems to be acceptable to “mansparage” (my makey-uppy-word—definition: the art of using socially acceptable sexist, belittling, and/or abusive language against men to control how they sit, walk, talk, seek help, or exist).
Using such blended words can demoralize or dismiss a man’s physical or emotional needs and his attempts to seek help and talk about whatever is getting him down. It can also diminish his ability to connect with others and therefore get social support. These words can compound his misery, his negative feelings about himself, and can be abusive and controlling. Seriously, if you couldn’t reach out to someone without being rejected or mocked when you have the sniffles would you feel safe to reach out when you are feeling depressed? And without anyone to reach out to, we are alone and unsupported, alone and vulnerable, alone trying to find a personal understanding of our own struggles.
Sadly, whilst most of these “fun” words are derogatory or scornfully mocking of men, they can also undermine and minimise the difficulties we face and jeopardise our attempts in overcoming and addressing problems.
Overall, the “man-” message is clearly unfair: apparently, if we are to believe what is commonly said, we are a group of childish, self-pitying, whiny weaklings (Mantrum, Manbaby, Manflu) who are aggressive, anti-social, patronising bullies who can’t sit, (Manspreading), walk, (Manslamming), or talk correctly (Manterupting, Mandermining), can’t possibly have wholesome and platonic male friends (Mancrush, Man-date), and can just about manage to wait outside the shops staring dopily into space until the missus comes back and tells us what to do (Manstanding). Even single-tasking is deemed beyond us sometimes; likewise serious issues which are considered a female domain like anorexia (Manorexia) and anxiety (Manxiety) and opening up about feelings and, God forbid, getting emotional (Mangina, Manopause). Such “man-” words are harmful; they shut down debate or conversation, are belittling, derisive, polarising, and sexist, and their overuse and incorrect use conceals when someone really is being aggressive, dismissive, creepy, or patronising. How’s that for Mansplaining?
However, seeing as a trend exists for blending words based on aspects of manhood, let's change words fairly. Nicely. Why not use “men-” words to acknowledge the good things about men? Let’s use language to unite, to open conversation and debate, and to promote equality, relationships and health. Let’s recognise the menthusiastic, menterprising, menlightening, mentertaining, menthralling, and menchanting nature of many of our men. Let them speak, share feelings, thoughts, and opinions without any pejorative “man-” word responses that could close communication. Let’s put men into mental health.
As the song goes, “Boys don’t cry” and, it seems, that regardless of the pain, sorrow, loss, misjudgements, or plain stupidity, the best thing to do is to conceal the hurt with laughter. Super!
Now, whether or not you agree with the approach of The Cure’s Robert Smith, who says he will do pretty much anything to get his lover back—apart from say sorry, remain truthful, explain the errors of his ways, beg forgiveness, or declare his love—he is hindered by trying to conceal his pain; avoiding showing his tears. But I reckon his point is typical of many of us because when was the last time you saw a man cry?
We're Told not to Cry
Picture the scene: a little boy of four or five years is running along and falls over, a minor scrape, nothing life threatening but he is hurt and a bit frightened. What will the adult caregiver say when he or she goes over to the boy? Would the adult response be different for a little girl? What would other boys say?
Traditionally, many men today would have been told when they were children to conceal the tears: “be a big boy”, “don’t be a softy”, “don’t be a girl”, “be strong”, etc. From a young age, we have learnt that our painful emotions are open to condemnation, are invalidated, and “ought” to be hidden. We’re accused of being weak, charged with being feminine, or publicly prosecuted for not being man enough—even boys must be manly it would seem. So we learn fast to suppress our feelings whilst ensuring that our facial expressions never give us away.
Ultimately, we quickly find that expressing vulnerability or caring is discouraged and is seen as the domain of the girls; and to do otherwise, runs the risk of being demoted in the eyes of our brethren and ourselves. Moreover, because we have had limited exposure to such things, we get awfully awkward when other men break convention and express vulnerability or caring: often, we’ll abort the conversation, we’ll mock or criticise, we’ll look down at our feet, or we’ll change the subject. After all, how do you know how to respond when you’ve had limited experience in talking about emotions? Indeed, how do you know how to feel if you’re not allowed to have emotions?
Despite it being a social construct whereby each of us gets a version of gender training, many of us think of masculinity as a natural thing. Naturally, there are differences in male and females but young boys and girls don’t differ much: many differences accrue when they meet with societies attitudes and values, e.g., we get gender specific names to be called, colours to wear, toys and games to play, and we get denied or granted the right to express our feelings: the divisive list is endless.
Men are discouraged in expressing their emotions and instead are told to keep schtum; they are encouraged to sacrifice their emotions by diverting their energies into wholesome and not so wholesome pursuits and to merely remain another cog in the wheel; they even get spun a load of codswallop in the glory that can be had in sacrificing (their) lives as a duty for a Cause, Country, God, Monarch, whatever. The message is clear; men’s lives and emotions are dispensable—and many of us struggle to find our way to be and to understand.
Hypermasculine and Hypomasculine
It’s a confusing, bewildering, map-less road to becoming a man. We each need a suitable male role model to lead a way (not to lead us away). Not that there is one definitive way that suits all; rather, a way that suits each man being true to himself. Without a father figure, we’ll falter, we’ll flounder, we’ll fade, we’ll fail.
For instance, many men overcompensate as they are unsure what being male is. Such men tend to become hypermasculine, exaggerating their masculinity. Oh you know these guys; the frantically uber-male who’s crass and cocky when he measures up and cripplingly cranky when he doesn’t. He’s a high achieving, ultra-competitive, non-relaxed, top dog who doesn’t respond well to simple demands. Down boy!
Such men are unfamiliar with non-competitive friendships or any real friendships at all perhaps; sadly, they have a limited ability to be vulnerable or to co-operate with other people and cannot cope with others being equal to them.
Then there are those who abdicate: they (partly) abandon their masculinity, preferring to remain as an adolescent and to avoid responsibility, growing-up, and stress and challenges of any kind—despite the fact that such avoidance is hugely stressful and challenging in itself; perpetual Xbox playing is their Call of Duty.
And of course there are those amongst us who were/still are a bit of both hypermasculine and hypomasculine, even if we’re not aware of it. For example, the Don Juan who demands his mammy washes and irons his clothes.
For years, children were raised primarily by women in a culture that said females were best/primary care givers. Maybe they are—I aint touching that one! Nevertheless, mainly, and for various reasons (whether they be personal, political, societal, vocational, etc.), men had limited to no contact with their children. Obviously, this minimised fathers being close enough to teach boys how to be men and reduced the amount of domestic male role models to show men the way to care for themselves and others.
Furthermore, children with limited access to suitable role models at home (or nearby) may have had few opportunities to see the interplay within relationships, thus curtailing their repertoire of how best to be in relationships: e.g., supporting, encouraging, listening, accepting, trusting, respecting, and negotiating. Worse for those without a suitable male role model who would most likely see adolescent machismo as a way of being and not a rite of passage; they neither know how to treat a lady nor how to be a man.
Overall, identifying how to be good and caring to oneself and others is fundamental for us and our relationships with others.
Seeking or Avoiding
In my counselling work, I see many men who come to me for different reasons. Some men recognise that by addressing their own psychological needs they also improve the needs of others in their family—such, they say, is their responsibility as a father, husband, son, etc., i.e., we need to care for ourselves to be our best for others. Other men, it seems, need a bit more persuasion to come to therapy and often, after a few resentful sessions, are glad they stuck with it as their well-being, relationships, and lives improved.
Whilst it’s fair to say that the stigma of men attending counselling is reducing it’s not gone entirely. Other barriers includes (non) coping style, not recognising there is a problem, being unable to talk about problems, and the perception that being “strong, silent, and unemotional” is incompatible with therapy, and the belief that one loses control and manliness over entering a “female” arena—it aint a female only place lads!
More and more men are entering therapy as they realise that society has stacked the deck against them by giving impossible rules to achieve and maintain their masculinity. We are starting to realise that masculinity is not solely measured by fighting, winning, providing, and/or protecting and that we are more than mere competitors and suppliers: we are more than our jobs or money or amount of stuff; we are not limited by our prowess, strength or any stereotype. Instead, we are realising that maintaining and/or acquiring mastery and control in our lives can be achieved by personal and in-depth explorations of who or what we are with a professional consultant. Many of us are exploring such things with our friends and/or family too—because we’re allowed.
So can we create modern rules of masculinity whilst truly honouring our own real manliness? I reckon we can but it needs to be unique to each man whilst recognising the strengths of others. Let’s not re-invent the wheel here. We got to be willing to safely talk about how we feel and to accept it when others do likewise. Let’s not chastise, criticise, or correct, and let’s take the responsibility for our own self-care.
Let how we feel about ourselves be dependent on who we truly are and less about how well we believe we conform to masculine norms. Let’s be able to pass on the wisdom of how to be a man to those who feel we are role models. After all, wouldn’t it be awfully sad if you had nothing to share? Ooops, I’m perilously close to showing some sadness here. I’m welling up. I might even cry.
As the song goes, “This is a man’s world” and, it seems, if it weren’t for men and our list of burly, brawny, brainy achievements we’d still be stagnating in some rank and wretched pool of backwardness of our own (non) making. Thanks lads!
Now, whether or not you accept the enlightened words of James Brown, AKA, the Godfather of Soul (or Sexism, or whatever you’ll have yourself), he does end his homily with an interesting point: despite the achievements, man is lost. I think Jimmy may have had a point because it can be tough being male.
Consider the following sad sobering stats: when compared with females, males are more likely to have severe problems with their behaviour, learning, or mental health, and more likely to be an addict, a convict, or a target of multiple nasties. Furthermore, whether by the hands of fate, oneself, or another person, men die younger too. Such doom and gloom in such a brief snapshot: as I said, it can be tough being male. If only we’d share our thoughts more on the important things: the stuff that gets us down or wears us down or is hard to shake, as well as the things that help us cope, gives us hope, and makes us better, happier men. If only!
But do we often share how we truly feel? To me, it seems, we are more likely to talk football than feelings or hurling than hurting and more likely to talk politics than say what makes us tick. Overall, we’re probably more likely to go to court than go to counselling.
Naturally, talking politics, news, sports, what have you, can provide a great sense of catharsis and understanding of the world. It helps us bond too. Similarly, attending big sporting, music, and social events can give a sense of belonging, purpose, and an avenue to express our emotions. But can we go further within and outside these arena? Can we really talk?
For generations we’ve been socialised to follow Gender Roles which said that a “Real Man” is strong, silent, unemotional, and immovable; you know, like a statue on Easter Island. A “Real Man” is competent: A hero who gets the job done; a no fuss, no wuss, kick-ass bad-ass with a shaken martini and steady nerve. Think Bond, Eastwood, Cooper, Wayne, the Marlboro Man. Simply put, a “Real Man” is a mythical creature who relentlessly wins when he fights, continuously protects and provides, and constantly retains mastery and control. Naturally, he never asks for help or direction, he never loses, and he never, ever cries (that’s for girls or when Ireland beat England in football, rugby, well, anything really).
So, to avoid negative evaluations or condemnation from others, a “Real Man” must always internalise his hurt. He keeps it all in until his immense stress, anger, or pain culminates in a peptic ulcer, a heart attack, severe depression, a drink problem, you name it; he withdraws, he becomes socially and emotionally isolated, he’s weighed down, he angrily erupts and verbally or physically damages his relationship with himself, family, and/or his community. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, lurking in the back of his mind are various indelible wonderings of life and his place in it, e.g., “what it’s all about?”, “Is this it?”, “If only I could...”
This glorified masculinity confuses men and women and gives impossible goals and exaggerated views of what masculinity ought to be. (Personally, for example, I could never master being a brave, tough, philander, who was also sensible, kind, and monogamous.) We therefore struggle throughout life with the contradictory ridiculous demands of masculinity, comparing ourselves to the myths of other men and pretending to be what we are “supposed” to be. Ultimately, we become embarrassed or disappointed with our own “limitations” and reduce our chances to become truly close to women and to other men and to be the best role model we can be to our children and other men.
For many of us, we adopt personae, we pretend, we become a stereotype whilst trying to become a society accepted “Success Object”. We focus more on gaining stuff and winning games than on how we feel. Done for long enough, this becomes our way of being and we limit/lose the ability to express how we feel—the fancy word for this is alexithymic; but I wonder if this really exists.
Rather, do we men just go a different way about things? Just because we don’t say it doesn’t mean we don’t know it or do anything about it (and please, we are a lot more complex than the oft ascribed 7 Dwarfed Developmental States of dopey, grumpy, happy, horny, hungry, sleepy, and solitarily withdrawn).
Sometimes, we take action, we overcome, we work side by side with other men, we take the scenic route to expressing how we feel. Sometimes! However, I reckon we do need to open up more, share, seek and accept support before, or when, the proverbial hits the fan because the stats for us don’t look healthy.
Cracks Appear: Barriers Fall
In my counselling work, many men tell me that they feel boxed in and lost; they’ve been socialised to believe that they must be a “Success Object” and/or a certain kind of man. Whether symbolic, social, or financial, they are trapped, they say, and it’s hard [not impossible] to escape to live a preferred way. Although the pretence is constant and hard, early signs that something is wrong with life appear when one is vulnerable, real, awestruck, or happy, e.g., during an endurance test, with a lover, alone on a long walk or a mountain top, or playing with children or pets. Often it’s lovely and fleeting and forgotten too soon.
Other times, one gets winded, dumbfounded as reality delivers a sucker-punch (e.g., a relationship split, death, kids in trouble, etc.) and the realisation that “I haven’t being living true to myself” is as profound as it is overwhelming. Whatever the calamity or malady life flings at us, one is left reeling in the aftermath and adaptation to the inevitable change is necessary. Easier said than done: Easier done with support.
Importantly, the main factor in accepting, beating, coping, developing, overcoming, or understanding the challenges we face and how we face them is social support.
Support from our family, partner, and/or friends is second to none. Not only does it help us to belong it also helps us to be real as it allows us to live a life of our own truth. What gifts to be able to genuinely express ourselves without shame or contradiction, to safely explore, to follow our hearts, and to be understood. Without these gifts, some say, illnesses are just the final blow as one was dying already. So, if you’ve got social support cherish it, if you haven’t, cultivate it and seek the help wherever you can get it.
We men need to be more comfortable with sharing our vulnerabilities whilst retaining our masculinity. Therefore it’s important to readjust what our concepts of masculinity are and to challenge any nonsense we see and hear. We don’t have to follow the “proper” behaviour scripts; scripts change because people change them, e.g., Irish identity, Anglo Irish relations, hugging a male friend in public, or celebrating with exuberance—thank God, Allah, Charlton, or whichever deity you prefer for Italia ’90.
And what is masculinity anyway? Well, it’s hard to define yet it’s variously defined. For example, masculinity is defined as qualities and activities (mostly implying strength or force) that distinguish men from women. It’s influenced by society, biology, motives, abilities, learning, conditioning, strivings, situational pressures, luck, and random events. (Naturally, these vary across societies, cultures, families, towns, etc., yet men must sing off the same hymn sheet.) Simply, it’s what is expected—not so simply, it’s a fluid, intangible concept that is impossible to completely fulfil.
So create your own, ahem, Him Sheet or Hymn Sheet if you prefer. A few tips: