Conventional wisdom says the friendships between adult men are a cold, inhospitable place devoid of nurturing or emotional support.
But researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia and the University of Westminster in the UK report that changing cultural norms are leading to a rise in ‘bromances’.
They also say the crisis in loneliness among men has been significantly overblown, despite earning widespread media coverage.
Assumed signs of aggression, like offensive comments and mocking banter, can actually be signs of real closeness, according to sociologist Alex Broom at Sydney and his coauthor Damien Ridge, a practicing psychotherapist at Westminster.
‘Lads will only talk when there’s beer on board, you know,’ one study subject told researchers, ‘when the guard is down.’ (Above) Jason Segel, Paul Rudd and Rashida Jones in the iconic 2009 bromantic comedy I Love You, Man
‘It’s true that men often relate to others differently than women,’ they write.
‘By focusing on the relative lack of verbal expression to suggest that male friendships are not close,’ they argue, ‘we then do not see how men demonstrate closeness less obviously, in coded ways, or even silently.’
In movies and TV, a quick joke between mates can be seen as a deflection: men avoiding the serious stuff by making light of it. But Broom and Ridge have found that the truth is often the exact opposite.
They unpacked their theory, after examining peer-reviewed academic literature on male-bonding from the past two decades, in an essay for The Conversation.
They cite in-depth interviews with a sample of 30 Israeli military men, conducted by a behavioral scientist at Tel Aviv University, which found that humor — even insults — were often used to foster a sense of togetherness.
The vets described ‘humorous interactions involving idioms, nicknames, curses, nonsense talk, aggressive gestures, and embraces,’ according to the study, ‘staged publicly under the guise of instrumental action.’
But all these unclear messages on duty, according to the researchers, were like a tease designed to engage their fellow servicemen and draw them closer into real friendships.
‘Maybe down the track you might become close enough and then you might start ripping into each other,’ according to one male participant for another study they cited, this one published in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity.
‘I think if people hear you talking like that to other blokes,’ the participant said, ‘then they definitely know you’re good mates.’
Grabbing a beer is a classic excuse for men to open up and express themselves, and the researchers noted it was one of several changes of venue that helped men get their bromantic partners to open up.
They referenced a study of 15 young Irish males (all between 19–30 years of age) who’d struggled with the loss of close male friend to suicide in the past 5 years.
‘Lads will only talk when there’s beer on board, you know,’ one subject told the researchers, ‘when the guard is down.’
But the pub wasn’t the only option. In fact, Broom and Ridge found that men could build emotional intimacy everywhere from volunteer organizations to DIY workshops and hobby groups.
‘We believe creating more of these safe zones for young men is key,’ they write.
John Beckenbach, a program director in counselor education and supervision at Adler University in Chicago, whose work was used by Broom and Ridge, tells the DailyMail.com that academics should be engaging men on these questions directly.
‘I do agree with this article,’ Beckenbach says, ‘but simply creating the space has to deal with the reality that there is a masculine discourse that says, “Don’t do that.”
‘Instead of us deciding what we should be doing for men,’ Beckenbach recommends, ‘ask them. “How would you want to have a space created for you to have this opportunity? What would that look like?”‘
From Beckenbach’s own research, men often second guess their natural instincts on building close friendships, because of their formative experiences with intimacy.
‘This one blew my mind at the time,’ he told the DailyMail.com, ‘they all learned about intimacy from their moms and their sisters and their first girlfriends. That’s what they say—and they all got the message that they do it wrong.’
For Broom and Ridge, the trend toward greater male intimacy can be attributed, in part, to changing generational attitudes on gender identity and male intimacy, a wider social acceptance of homosexuality.
But Beckenbach adds that it’s most important to let men bond in their own way.
‘Any version of trying to improve “bromance,”‘ Beckenbach says, ‘that term makes my eye twitch by the way, has to include the men who you’re trying to influence.’
‘You have to include them in the process. They have to have a say.’