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Why do men struggle with friendship? After getting engaged, comedian Max Dickens realized there was no one to be his best man. As a recovering boyfriend explores the ‘stagnant male friendship’, people and projects do something about it
“May I interest you with a bag of dolls in various states of undress?”
This is Dan Flanagan, founder of Dad La Soul, a social enterprise that offers play dates to single parents. It is an autumnal Saturday morning in the sleepy seaside town of Worthing in West Sussex. I’m watching Flanagan create a collection of soft play in a place that, on weekdays, is a center for seniors with learning disabilities. “It’s the calm before the storm,” he warns. He’s not wrong: Ten minutes later, 25 or so dads pour in—accompanied by at least a handful of young children.
For decades, studies have consistently shown that men have fewer friends — and especially fewer close friends — than women. “As men get older, we often become trapped in small social circles,” says Flanagan. Unfortunately, it’s a situation I know all too well. Two years ago, I was planning to propose to my girlfriend only to realize I had no one to call my best man. Since then, I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of the problem with male friendship. And explore solutions, like this one.
Stewart is here with his five year old son. He runs a brewery in Brighton, and with his handlebar mustache and sarcastic Hawaiian shirt, he looks just like the guy who would. We lean against the wall, overlooking the carnage. On the other side of the room, three children have their father rolled in a toilet so they can become mummies.
He told me, “What I get here is openness and honesty.” “We talk about things that aren’t just about work or football. I’ve had better conversations with the guys I’ve just met here than with friends I’ve known for years.”
Psychologists generally argue that friendship struggles between men are, in essence, conflicts of vulnerability. Flanagan agrees, “I don’t think society bred us to have these kinds of deeper conversations.” “Our role models haven’t. It’s very strange. It’s about changing that narrative.”
Dads have a chinwag at Worthing Dad La Soul. Photo: Peter Flood
However, it’s hard to say that the guys are more uptight than they were in the 70s or 80s. But since then, the problem of male friendship, if any, has only worsened. In 2021, the Center for Studies on American Life identified a “friendship slump” among males: Since 1990, the number of men who report not having close friends has jumped from 3 to 15 percent. In the same research, the number of men who said they had at least six close friends halved, from 55 to 27 percent. Does this indicate something else is going on?
Dr. Robin Dunbar thinks there is. He is Professor Emeritus of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford and considered the father of friendship research. He argues that men’s social style is fundamentally different from that of women, and that the reasons for this are innate.
“Women have very personal friendships: who you are is more important than who you are. Whereas for men, it’s the other way around,” he tells me when we talk on Zoom. The male social world is more superficial, mundane, and club-like. “So, what qualifies you as being a friend is that you belong in the club, no matter what that definition is,” he says. “It could be the guys who play five-on-one, the guys who go for a beer together every Friday night, the guys who go canoeing. It’s almost always activity-based in some way.”
After attending Dad La Soul, some of the men went on to join male choirs. Photo: Peter Flood
You lose the club – you lose the common activity – and often you lose friendships. And as men enter the realm of parenting, middle age grows, and time becomes scarcer, the more likely they are to drop out of these things.
But the question is: do men really like to hang out in this cabaret-like way? Or do our social relationships look like this because they are generally the only thing on display? It’s the first, Dunbar argues, not least because this “male pattern” can be seen across cultures, appears to appear very early on, and is also visible in our closest primate cousins.
However, one form of friendship isn’t necessarily exclusive of the other, and that turns out to be Flanagan’s strategy, both on those playdates and at his fortnightly midweek “We don’t all sit around in a circle, because that’s not therapy. There are things.” You can do them, and be interested in them,” he explains. “There is a pool table. We put on some tunes…” (Dad La Soul is a play on De La Soul, the ’90s hip-hop trio—there are floors at every meeting.)
Research suggests that men are better suited to socializing “club-like”. Photo: Peter Flood
“We are Trojans. Come get a beer, have a game, tell some terrible joke, and then you quietly realize that the talk goes on too.”
“Dan made it sound great. You think: ‘This is something I want to go for,’” says Neil, a neurologically-disabled nurse here with his two children. “It’s also under the radar, you know? “I’m not alone, I’m taking my kids out…”
Female minds may boggle at these kinds of sleight of hand, but talk to those on the front lines of the battle against the male unit and they’ll tell you that men won’t just ‘get together’: they need to pretend. They also need a leg-up. “Two-thirds of the men who walk through the door are referred by their wives and partners,” Flanagan tells me. They think, ‘I can see he has no friends, but he won’t say anything. “
It is not likely to do anything. Men’s social laziness is now well established in the social scientific literature: As men get older, they delegate maintaining and forming friendships to their better half until all their friends become, well, her friends.
Kids use toilet paper to turn dads into mummies. Photo: Peter Flood
This middle-aged Brotherhood fire can only be placed on the door of useless men. Broader structural factors are also likely to play a role. For example, we are more mobile than we used to be. Stewart (Brighton) and Neil (London) have moved from wealthy cities in search of affordable housing, leaving their social circle behind. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg told me that we also witnessed a breakdown in the “social infrastructure” that supported our friendships.
Women are also at the mercy of these changes, of course. But they may affect men more, because they compound our relative lack of social initiative and skill — not to mention men’s tendency to socialize like clubs.
“Community center type environments—the church, the working men’s club, the Freemasons—they’ve always been here in one form or another, in all cultures, for an immemorial time,” Dunbar says. “These kinds of community activities are dying quietly. We are cutting out the environments that we need.”
Dickens has spent the past year talking to experts about the quirks of male friendship. Photo: Peter Flood
That was the biggest thing I learned as a recovering “no buddies Billy”: In a world increasingly unfriendly to friendship, it’s all on us now. friendship in the twenty-first century? Well, it takes work.
Dad La Soul is coming to an end for another month. Flanagan comes over to check if I’m all right. “Loud, isn’t it?” He says. A young girl dressed as a ballerina walks in front of her blowing into a tape recorder as if trying to summon a demon. Nearby, a boy of the same age walks up to another person and asks if he might want to join him in the Lego pit. He thinks about it, for about half a second, and fades away. These kids seem to have this very restless friend thing.
Flanagan explores his kingdom. “This is just the beginning,” he says. “We’ve had guys who meet here and join a gospel choir together, who go swimming in the sea. A gang went out to watch Terminator that day…”
And maybe that’s all any of us want? Someone to play with.
Real Talk: How to Have Better Conversations
1. Go there
Without weakness, we put a ceiling on our relationships. Be the first to go: Don’t just talk about “things,” tell them what’s going on inside.
2. Beware the bantz
“Men learn that vulnerability often equals rejection or punishment,” friendship expert Dr. Marisa Franco told me. “If you want the vulnerability, safety must come first.” Take care that your banter does not get in the way.
3. Sit with her
If your friend shares a personal problem with you, don’t jump in to offer solutions. Instead, show empathy by listening patiently, asking questions, and sharing your experiences of the problem.
4. Active affection
Guys rarely communicate with their friends that they love them so much! Don’t wait until you’ve had seven beers: tell them now. Often pulls down walls.
5. Be direct
Sometimes we know something is going on with our mates, but we get over it—or let them do the same.
6. Ask direct questions
Call out what you notice. If your friend seems sad, be nice — but tell them.
Billy No Meets: How I Realized Men Had a Friendship Problem by Max Dickens, now published by Canongate
Main image: Peter Flood
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