Friday 30 September 2016

Lost boys: Why men don't do friends

As a new study confirms what we already suspected - men have fewer friends than women - we hear from the people hoping to alleviate male isolation

Joe O'Shea

Published 02/12/2015 | 02:30

Bromance: A friendless Paul Rudd goes to great lengths to find a best man before his wedding day in comedy 'I Love You Man'
Bromance: A friendless Paul Rudd goes to great lengths to find a best man before his wedding day in comedy 'I Love You Man'

Blame Hollywood and call it The Quiet Man Effect, the enduring idea that real men are made in the John Wayne mould - tough, taciturn and stand-alone.

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Even after a decade or more of "Bromance" movies and talk about the New Men who moisturise and get in touch with their feminine side, the classic stereotype endures. Men, unlike women, should be able to get by without a support network to reach out to, close friends to chat with about the touchy-feely stuff.

However, a new survey from the Movember Foundation, the global charity committed to helping men live happier, healthier, longer lives, has revealed that it is men, more than women, who can feel the most lonely, especially in the run up to Christmas. In many cases, there are simply no friends to talk to.

The survey found that just over half of men (51pc) have two friends or less to whom they would open up to about a serious problem. Some 12pc said they do not have a friend they would talk to about issues such as career or financial worries, health problems or relationship difficulties.

It's an issue that affects older men in particular. Almost one-in-five of over-55s surveyed said they did not have a close friend.

While the study was done in the UK, the charity says the problem is a global one and points out that World Health Organisation (WHO) research shows that almost one-in-four men worldwide experience low levels of social support, and a quarter have no one outside their immediate family to rely on.

It seems that men of all ages have difficulties in keeping in close contact with people, with 9pc in the Movember study admitting they could not remember the last time they reached out to a friend, and 26pc saying they only made contact with their friends once a month.

One stat in particular might strike home with Irish men - not renowned for being the most demonstrative. Some 43pc of those asked said they had never told a friend that they loved them.

That men are as isolated as ever before might seem strange in this age of super social-connectivity. But while men can be very active on sites such as Facebook, it seems they are often connecting only on a very superficial level.

Some social theorists have speculated that men - hard-wired by evolution to be competitive and to view other males as a threat - lack a "friendship gene", the ability to make relationships based on mutual trust and support.

In conservative societies, where "traditional" gender roles dominate (or have up to recently), men are often expected to leave the nurturing roles to the "weaker" sex. They are not encouraged to talk about their emotional needs.

These attitudes are passed down through generations, as we learn how to be men primarily from our fathers and grandfathers.

Those involved in men's health and mental well-being in Ireland say it's still very difficult for guys to reach out, to talk openly and honestly and break through the walls of isolation.

But there are groups trying to make a difference. As well as Movember - which this year is promoting its MOVE initiative to get men active and social - there are more locally inspired groups such as the Irish Men's Sheds Association.

This grass-roots, nationwide organisation encourages men of all ages and backgrounds to get together, in sheds, halls, community centres, wherever they can gather to work on projects, socialise and generally give each other friendship, support and a sense of connectivity.

It is a simple idea. "Shedders" (often but not exclusively older or unemployed men) get a place to hang out, work on projects together or just share a cup of tea and a chat.

And as Barry Sheridan of the Shed Association explains, it's an idea that has proved particularly valuable in Ireland.

"Most of us have learnt from our culture, that we don't really talk about our feelings and emotions," says Barry.

"Unlike women, men are reluctant to reach out to people, we've been taught to build up these internal walls.

"And often, if there's loneliness or worry, men will drink more, they'll neglect their well-being, they will be more prone to depression".

There are now more than 300 sheds operating nationwide, with over 10,000 men visiting them every week. They work as comfortable, friendly drop-in places for men and often facilitate projects - everything from lawn-mower repair to the learning and sharing of new skills, which benefit the men themselves and their communitites.

"It's a simple idea," says Barry. "There's a place down the road from you, you can drop in, have a cup of tea and a chat, do a bit in the workshop or just socialise for a few hours.

"That's the thing about Irish men. We love company but we're not great at making the first move. We find that once men realise the shed's there, there's no pressure, just drop by and see how you get on, they'll find a place for themselves.

"We've had guys telling us that they were in a town for 30 years, and they never realised, until they came to the shed, that there were other men like them living all around".

The value of organisations such as the "Shedders" can hardly be overstated in a country which has one of the highest rates of male suicide in the developed world. Of the 10 people who take their lives every week in Ireland, eight are men. Some mental health campaigners have called it an epidemic.

The Movember Foundation, which encourages men to grow moustaches and get active throughout November as part of their now familiar annual campaign, warns that isolation and loneliness is one of the main risk factors linked to poor mental health.

And as the Movember Foundation's Sarah Coghlan points out, many men lack the basic skills for making and maintaining friendships.

"One of the things we see is that men are out of the habit of striking up new friendships," says Ms Coghlan.

"Women are quite comfortable with striking up a new friendship and saying, 'Hi, do you want to go for a glass of wine after work or even see a film next Tuesday?'

"We have to find innovative means to get men to reconnect with each other."

The Movember Foundation, which has raised over €470m for men's health charities and initiatives since it was founded in 2003, will be looking at a range of new initiatives this year.

The Foundation has launched the MOVE challenge in Ireland and the UK - calling on guys to sign up for a 30-day fitness regime that should get them off the couch and out into the wider world, working on their physical and mental well-being.

The Movember organisation is also setting aside millions of dollars worldwide for a Social Innovators Challenge, which aims to identify and then fund new projects aimed at helping men to make more life connections.

Barry Sheridan of the Men's Sheds movement says he sees the power of simple social connection every day.

"It's often just a case of letting guys know there's a place for them, that they will be welcome, that every man who comes in through the door of a shed, no matter what his story, is the same," says Barry.

"I've seen some great stories, men who have taken a small step but really changed their lives. I'll always be very proud of what we do and what we help people to do for themselves.

"And I think it's a big part of what we are all looking for in life, just that sense of friendship, of community, of feeling you belong".

If you are interested in finding out more about the Irish Men's Sheds Association - for yourself or perhaps for someone you know who might benefit from what they do - go to menssheds.ie

Irish Independent

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