Watching the Christian Bale movie “Hostiles” last week, I found myself relating to the quandary of man when it comes to communicating, saying the things we want to say and the struggles to put our sentiments on the line for fear of seeming too vulnerable or coming off as a candy-ass.
In the movie, Captain Joseph J. Blockeris (played by Bale) is a hard man. He’s lived through the Civil War and the American Indian Wars. He’s seen death, dealt death and avoided death most of his life, so with that, you would think it wouldn’t be difficult for him to keep his composure as he’s been accustomed to enough strife over the years to be impenetrable. But he still has cracks where compassion shines, and there are times when his vulnerability shows through his rocky demeanor. As I was taking all of this in, feeling like I was right there beside him, it was hard not to get choked up a bit.
The nods, the facial expressions and the one syllable sounds, were very much a part of this movie. The simple gestures that have so much meaning in a mans world, but mean little to a woman other than annoyance, as they see it as just another part of our lack of communication. It’s not that we can’t communicate, i think it’s just that we do it differently than women.
So I found myself thinking about why we are the way we are. Why do we have so much trouble putting our feelings on the line, why is it so hard to communicate how we feel, and why do most of us prefer to keep our problems to ourselves? Why are we portrayed as unfeeling, unemotional socially inept Neanderthals. I’m not a psychologist, so I’m going to wing it from what I’ve read and use a seldom used phrase called common sense, which is as rare as a unicorn nowadays.
Too often I find myself struggling to find the words to express how I feel. In my generation, we were taught to suck it up. Crying was not accepted and expressing your inner-self was considered weak. We weren’t really given a stage to talk about how we felt and instead were quickly told to move past it and be strong. This leads us to throwing our feelings aside or burying them and never really addressing the issues.
My dad had 5 brothers – all straight up saddle bronc farm boys. Growing up, anything outside the realm of masculinity was considered being a “tit,” a word my uncles frequently used. Expressing your feelings in this kingdom was almost a crime. Luckily I had a mother that gave me enough love and affection to even things out a bit. On the downside, this would come back to haunt me when I would head down south to visit my dad in the summertime. Entering his world of rodeos and cowboys forced me to buck up and be the kid I thought my father wanted me to be.
My first taste of machismo reality happened at a barn dance in Wisconsin, when I was six years old. A boy was teasing me about my Canadian accent. A bit older than me, raucous, uncouth, a little shit – very similar to the dime a dozen ruffians I grew up around living in single parent neighborhoods until my mother was remarried. I finally got mad and pushed him and the battle was on.
Instead of the normal routine, where an adult would break up a fight like in the playground at school, the “adults” whistled, and blissfully cheered – this was a hard, cold, reality check for me, considering I’d always looked up to adults as protectors and role models. Add that to this kids rough cut, bull riding father yelling – “hit him like I taught you!” at that point I felt pretty small.
I looked over at my dad, hoping he would liberate me, but the “you got this” look he gave me, indicated I was clearly on my own. I compare it to a baby bird falling from the nest. I wanted to show my dad I could be tough, but I was bogged down by this terrifying new plight that scrappy little hair pulling monster had gotten me into.
In the end not much came out of it, rolling around on the floor, lots of straw dust, grabbing and clawing. I remember my eye being poked.
When all thirty seconds of what seemed like thirty minutes was over, my dad patted me on the back, said nothing and life went on. Within a couple of hours it didn’t matter much, because being a kid, the next big adventure takes precedence over past events pretty quickly and it was soon forgotten. But I often wonder today if my Dad was proud of me or if I embarrassed him with how I fought.
We can act tough, but at the end of the day we’re still human. So despite how we’re raised, we still have those moments of vulnerability where the walls come down and we let shit out, which can be a mess since we’re flushing our brains out of a lot of the things that have been building up over weeks or months.
Like most men, usually we’re more communicative or we’ll say something about how we’re feeling when things build up to the point where we can no longer hold them in. The problem with this is we’re not at our best during these times and tend to lash out and say things we don’t mean and regret later. So we’ll retract what we said after the damage has been done and try to change it and in the end come off as contradicting or confusing. After going through this a few dozen times, you realize it’s just easier to keep your mouth shut, for fear of regretting it later.
If you’re like me, (I think a lot of men are like this) you take the shortcut around confrontational situations, which in reality can handicap us even more. It’s easier to just agree or ignore or bury it, just to move on from it. By avoiding talking about the problem, or something that might cause a rift in our relationship, we can continue to act like no issue exists, which allows us to continue moving forward in a way thats less stressful and convenient for us, because we know a full conversation can trigger things we don’t want to deal with. We do what we can to run from it and hope it just goes away, when in actuality we’re just causing more damage. It’s a form of managing a situation to our advantage because with all the shit we deal with in the working world, we don’t want our relationships to be stressful like our everyday lives.
I do know as men we’re more compartmentalized in how we think and communicate. Listen to a group of women talk and a group of men talk…you notice the differences right away. This is why we squirm when we hear the words “we have to talk”. The barrage of words mixed with emotions, intimidates us and makes us uncomfortable. (I got the same feeling I had in my catholic elementary school when I was sent to the office and the principal pulled out the strap)
Most of us men engage in “report-talk,” it’s a style focused on exchanging information with little emotional input. This is a way for men to preserve independence and maintain status in a hierarchical social order. It goes wayyy back to the dawn of man. This is part of the reason there are so many misunderstandings between men and women. When it all comes down to it, we’re simply wired differently.
It’s never easy to deal with a person who doesn’t express themselves. I’m first degree guilty of this. I think taking time in a relationship to understand why certain issues exist really helps in finding effective ways to overcome them. Yes, I’m stating the obvious here. Creating an environment that encourages open communication is important but it has to come from both sides. In general, as men, we need to lower our defenses and get more comfortable connecting with our emotions and share our feelings when talking to women -but it’s so much easier said than done.
On the other hand, women need to learn to be more concise and direct when talking to men, and try to keep their emotions under control. We both have to bend a little. It’s about finding that perfect balance (or maybe finding that needle in the haystack?) The openness you desire from someone is a two way street. If you hold back, that will only make it easier for them to do the same and this will come back to haunt you down the road. I know this through experience.
Keep in mind, if everything I wrote in the last three paragraphs was that simple, I wouldn’t be writing this in the first place. A lot of it is learning from our mistakes – if I had a dollar for every one I’ve made, I’d be a very rich man. NP
I posted a link at the bottom that I think every man should read.