17 Jul 2022

Men and their problem with friendship

From Sunday Morning, 10:06 am on 17 July 2022

When British comedian and writer Max Dickins decided to propose to his girlfriend, he realised there was no one he could call on to be his best man.

But Max quickly learned that he wasn't the only man struggling with friendships.

In his latest book Billy No-Mates: How I Realised Men Have a Friendship Problem, he explores the barriers men face to forging closer relationships.

Billy No-Mates: How I Realised Men Have a Friendship Problem Hardcover by Max Dickins

Photo: Canongate Books

Countless studies from across the world have confirmed men have fewer close friends than women - and this gets worse as they age, Max tells Jim Mora.

The problem with men and friendship has two main elements, he says. 

“The first one is while they might have some mates, pub mates, workmates, guys they might play sport with, they don't have any close friends or people they can go to and have those more intimate conversations about some of the things that really matter ... certainly, compared to women.

“The second problem men have got with friendship is that as they get older their friendship circle, their social network, shrinks and it shrinks a lot more than women's of the same age do.”

Data shows men in their 20s have a wide circle of friends, Max says.

“Men have a bigger social group than women. But certainly into their mid-40s that is completely turned on its head.”

Max says the 'best man' question came up after he went shopping for a wedding ring with a female friend.

“We went shopping and afterwards we went to the pub, and she said, ‘So Max who you're going to have as the best man for your wedding when you propose?’ And my mind went completely blank. And I went back home that night, I got a bit of paper and a pen and I wrote a list of people I might ask - men in my life. And I realised most of them, I worked with them and they'd find it really weird if I said ‘Do you want to be my best man?’

“And the rest of them were men I maybe hadn't seen in some cases for two or three years. And I just thought what is going on? Loneliness doesn't look like me, right? It looks like somebody else. It looks like a much older person.

“I'm pretty outgoing, I'm pretty quick to buy a drink at the bar, this is not meant to have happened. And I just thought, what goes wrong for men like me?”

Men struggle with maintaining friendships because of the way that they 'do' friendship, he says.

“Where do you meet your male friends? Almost always, certainly in the UK at least, it's in the pub. It involves drinking because that's what we think we're meant to do.

“We don't like to be the one that chases and does the organising. Why? Because we're not meant to look needy. And we’ve got to have that cool pose. We don't tell our friends we like them because that's a bit ... maybe we think that's a bit weak.”

Banter is usually a key element of male friendship, Max says.

“I call it the jazz of casual brutality, taking the mickey. And it's great fun, but it can create this atmosphere where we maybe don't feel we have permission to talk about other stuff, we create this moat around us where people can't get near to us.”

Men and women take different approaches to spending time with friends, he says.   

“Women's friendships tend to be face-to-face, based around talk, they're quite intense, emotionally, a lot of disclosure in that sense. And then male friendships, on the other hand, tend to be side-by-side, they're about sharing activities, doing stuff together, often in groups.”

Consequently, male friendships are harder to maintain as life patterns change, Max says.

“Those male relationships based around sharing activities suddenly get a lot harder. So maybe that's why men struggle with friendship.

"But then women have time constraints, as well. And yet their friendships don't seem to be so affected. And it's because I think they're better at doing the work of friendship.”

Once partnered, men tend to outsource their social lives, he says.

“Guys don't tend to do that relational work with each other.”

Yet the resulting loneliness is literally killing them, Max says.

“Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. And if you talk to mental health experts, they'll say that the fact men don't have avenues for the sort of close conversations that maybe women have more access to, is a big factor in that.

“We also now know that your physical health is really affected by loneliness. A huge study that came out, it's been quoted all over the place, that actually not having friends is worse for you than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese or drinking to excess.”

After talking to an expert on friendship, Max decided to do something about his own loneliness.

“I spoke to a guy called Dr Robin Dunbar, who is regarded as the world expert in terms of friendship research, an evolutionary anthropologist, and he said, If I could give you one tip, it's join a club. It's a structure where you can repeatedly go back to it, it's kind of a closed loop.

“I set up a five-a-side soccer league, which I did every couple of weeks, just got the guys together, and we played and then we had a drink after.

“And now that doesn't sound very glamorous, or like some huge magic bullet fix, but the fact that it was in the diary just made it so much easier, because we all knew where to show up, and we didn't have to rely on spontaneity.”

Part of the problem is that men are constrained by society's rituals, he says.

“Our options are fairly limited. You can't say to a guy should we go out for dinner?

“You say, hey, should we meet up and have a drink? And then while you're having a drink, you might, if you're hungry, say should we go grab some food, it's never your for dinner itself.”

Dr Dunbar also told Max about the technique of ‘mentalising’.

“Mentalising is the absolute nub of social skills, it's reading the room, it's you come in and say something and I can understand your mindset how you're feeling, so I can respond appropriately.

Dunbar argues that women maintain closer friendships than men as they “literally have better software,” Max says.

“Women outperform men in those mentalising tasks consistently, all the time, often by quite a lot.”

When it came to Max's wedding, he realised that his two best friends were actually women - and that was absolutely fine.

"They were my best women when I got married but I had three groomsmen as well, who were amazing.”

He says the time spent actively nurturing his male friendships is now reaping rewards.

“I spent ages trying to have much better friendships with the men in my life and that was a success. And in the end, the wedding was as well. It was just not a man stood there holding the ring.”