Men Can Have Better Friendships. Here's How The typical definition of masculinity is the polar opposite of what makes strong friendships. In this episode, we talk to men about their struggles with friendship and looking for answers with some celebrity experts.

Men Can Have Better Friendships. Here's How

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JULIA FURLAN, HOST:

Hi. I'm Julia Furlan, and this is NPR's LIFE KIT. As you could probably tell by the title of this episode or any number of things that led you here, we're talking about friendship. And look - I don't want to brag, but we brought our absolute dream team - some of the highest-ranked podcast guests in all of friendship.

RAFAEL CASAL: I feel like we're, like, the Michael Jordan of friendships. Like, you can't ask Jordan how he does what he does. He's a freak of nature, you know. It's an anomaly. Like, this is phenomenally rare.

FURLAN: That's Rafael Casal, who we talked to along with his best friends Daveed Diggs and Utkarsh Ambudkar. All three of them are multitalented artists, performers. They're singers. They're hip-hop artists. They're everything. You can find their names in the credits of about a squillion different projects, but here are just a few - "The Mindy Project," "Hamilton," "Pitch Perfect," the movie "Blindspotting," which Rafael and Daveed wrote and star in, for the record. At one point, all three guys were also part of an improvised hip-hop group called Freestyle Love Supreme.

And they credit their friendship - this Michael Jordan sailing through the air kind of friendship - for their professional success. They even all moved to the same neighborhood now so that they can collaborate on music and movie projects together. You know, they're tight.

CASAL: Like, everything we do is about, like, hugging it out when you see each other.

DAVEED DIGGS: Utkarsh is a serious hugger. Utkarsh hugs a lot (laughter) when you least expect it.

UTKARSH AMBUDKAR: I do. I love my buddies. I mean, like, it's corny but true. When Rafa and I lived together, we'd have, like - we'd have a cigarette pretty much every night. And every night, we'd hug and say, I love you. Goodnight.

FURLAN: They're here because they're modeling this kind of friendship that I think a lot of men wish that they could have, and in this episode, we're using the word men to reference folks who identify that way who are therefore saddled with masculinity. That's right. We're talking about masculinity because honestly, my dudes, there's a lot to talk about. And addressing the idea of masculinity and friendship is not just something for men to manage or handle. It's a collective project, which means that this episode is not just, like, a podcast but for men. It's for everyone who's interested in more functional relationships. Also, just a heads-up, gender is a scam, but that's a story for another day.

So whether you're a guy who feels isolated even though you have friends dating back to peewee football or you're a person whose straight guy friends aren't pulling their emotional weight, this NPR LIFE KIT is for you. But first, a break.

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FURLAN: As we get started here, what is this whole masculinity racket anyway? A couple questions I have - why is being aggressive considered manly? Who decided that men and boys don't cry? And, like, why would we expect men to suppress so much of what makes them whole people?

THOMAS PAGE MCBEE: Men are supposed to not ask those questions or not think about those things. It somehow makes your masculinity fragile in this sort of pyramid scheme in which we think about masculinity.

FURLAN: Thomas Page McBee is a writer who's thought a lot about masculinity and the relationships that men have with each other. He's written two award-winning books, "Amateur" and "Man Alive," and has spent a lot of time reporting on and asking about what it means to be a man in this world. Thomas transitioned eight years ago and has a really interesting perspective on how masculinity shapes the world that we live in, and it's kind of brutal, TBH.

PAGE MCBEE: People in my life, like, were less intimate with me. People specifically touched me a lot less, even, like, my own family members. Like, my mom passed away a few years into my transition. Being at her memorial service and having my uncle, like, reach out to shake my hand instead of hugging me in a way that was, like, genuinely meant to be affirming - but he said to me, like, guys don't hug. And he was saying it lovingly, like he was accepting me as a man into his world, but it felt like such a poetic metaphor. It's like, in order to be a man, I have to give up the potential to be hugged.

FURLAN: Not great, right? And so much of society - and I'm talking about what I know here in the U.S. - it expects some pretty impossible stuff from boys and men. These messages are ingrained in our larger cultural value system. Be stoic. Don't cry. And while we're at it, don't show your emotion unless it's aggression because we expect that from you. Don't be vulnerable. There are a lot of pressures at work here that end up isolating men.

PAGE MCBEE: If you're a guy who feels like you have trouble making friends or that something isn't working for you in your social relationships, it's almost inevitably not just your problem. Like, this is a social ill that's, you know, a side effect of the way we socialize boys, and so I think actually it's a great opportunity to think about your socialization.

FURLAN: This is takeaway No. 1. Don't blame yourself. You are a product of society. We're not going to change all of society overnight, but also, nobody gets a pass just because we can't improve the entire world in one fell swoop. You've got to use this moment to dig deep and really question the constricting messages and invisible codes we're asking the men and boys in our lives to abide by. Thomas is certain that there's a lot of hope.

PAGE MCBEE: On one hand, like, it sucks to feel like you're not having the relationships you want, but, like, if you feel like you're lacking the skills that you need to change the relationships in the way that you want, like, those things can all be developed again. Like, you've had those skills before, and you can get them back.

FURLAN: That point that Thomas just made about how men have the skills when they're younger but then they just go dormant - there's research to support that.

NIOBE WAY: Children have remarkable social emotional skills - to listen to each other, to read each other's emotions, empathy, all sorts of lovely things. And then they seem to - boys seem to go underground, essentially.

FURLAN: Niobe Way is a professor of developmental psychology at NYU and the author of a book called "Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships And The Crisis Of Connection." In over 30 years of interviewing hundreds of teen boys, a big pattern emerged in her research. In childhood, boys do have these deep, affectionate friendships, but then, like clockwork, a shift happens.

WAY: So the boy at 13 that says, I love him; I can't live without him; we talk about everything, starts to sound very different at 15 and 16 - just sort of a real yearning for what they had when they were younger or wanting close friendships with other young men and feeling like they can't find them anymore or they had them and they lost them or it's harder to hold onto them.

FURLAN: Niobe says that the reason that things get hard for boys in their teens is that a lot of natural human behaviors are categorized as, quote-unquote, "un-masculine."

WAY: Friendships are coded as not masculine. Certainly, emotions are coded as - vulnerable emotions are coded as not masculine. So if you're not supposed to be emotional, that means you're not going to be able to find the intimacy.

FURLAN: To be a man in our society means you've likely turned off or dialed down parts of yourself that are vital when you're trying to make friends, so the best thing you could do is takeaway No. 2. Accept your own desire for intimacy because that makes it OK for everybody to feel those feelings.

WAY: Normalize it. Normalize the desire. Normalize the fact that all humans need these relationships to thrive. Charles Darwin said that our social abilities and skills is the reason why we've thrived as a species. I mean, we've known this for over a century - that these relationships are critical to our mental health - and we need to stop having a culture that says, somehow, you know, a certain gender doesn't need them and only another gender and sexuality needs them.

FURLAN: It's human to want friends - close, deep ocean friends, friends you love with an exclamation point, friends who know your deepest weirdness and your favorite emoji. So what does it look like to normalize that intimacy? Niobe has a story of doing that with her students that is super-duper-powerful. She was working with a class of seventh grade boys, and she was having them read quotes out loud from her book - quotes from other adolescent boys.

WAY: Very intimate quotes - and when they began to read the quote, they started to giggle because Justin (ph), the person who I'm quoting, is talking about how he loves his friend and can't live without him, et cetera.

FURLAN: The boys are laughing because, I mean, I don't know how many 12-year-old boys you know, but they're pretty resistant to the mushy-gushy stuff. But Niobe shifted things just by giving them some numbers. She told them that 85% of the teen boys she's interviewed express a longing for the intimacy that they felt in their friendships only a few years before.

WAY: And they all looked at me with their mouths hanging open, and they said, really? And I said, oh, yeah. That's what teenage boys sound like. Within a second, they were all sharing their own stories of wanting friendships, having friendships. And all I did was normalize it. I said, that's what boys sound like, and then they were willing to do it.

FURLAN: Niobe's working with boys here, but this lesson applies to people of all ages. She said that sharing articles and links on the topic of masculinity and friendship opens up the channels of communication. I mean, look. I don't want to tell you your business, but if you wanted to share this podcast, that would be totally fine and a completely appropriate way to do that, you know? You're already listening to it - just saying.

WAY: Basically, forward things that start the conversation. So there's, you know, my work, and there's all sorts of fantastic pieces about, you know, men's desire for close friendships with other men. Circulate those pieces so you get conversations going about them, and that makes it easier because that just normalizes it.

FURLAN: OK, normalizing the desire for friends is a really good goal, but what are the things that we need to do to get there? We have to make it OK to be vulnerable.

PAGE MCBEE: Like, vulnerability, of course, is the key to friendship, and also, I think that the men I've been talking to, I think, are seeing the bravery in that kind of vulnerability, which is really cool.

FURLAN: Thomas is right about bravery. It's hard to do this. You have to feel safe and supported to want to share your insecurities and your wild hopes with another person.

WAY: I mean, men are starving for this conversation, and it's just nobody's - at some level, nobody is willing to be first.

FURLAN: That's takeaway No. 2 - model vulnerability. Go first. It feels weird being the only person to really hang their whole self out there and let it fly, you know? I remember until I found my incredible group of friends in high school - yes, I am contractually obligated to mention them; hey, peanuts - I often felt like the weird one. Being that weird person who stands out because they're too loud or too brown or too emotional or whatever - it's terrifying.

So this takeaway is no small feat of courage, but it's also really simple. If you, from a place of security and strength, just go ahead and do it - you say, I'm afraid nobody will come to my party, or, I'm sad that my best friend moved away, or, I really miss my grandma every single day - you will make it OK for other people to follow your example.

WAY: So someone starts to share something intimate, and it's just going to happen that that person's then going to feel safe to share something intimate.

FURLAN: Let's go back to our friendship rock stars Utkarsh, Rafael and Daveed. Sure, they're, like, celebs or whatever, but you know what they say about stars - they're just like us. You know, they're not always feeling cool and confident.

CASAL: Like, I couldn't lie about being confident. Like, I had to just say, like, yeah, like, I'm kind of broken right now. And that sort of opened the door. There is a space to process it in a way that isn't like - hey, don't feel that way. It's like, OK. You feel like this. Now, how do we grow? How can I help you grow?

FURLAN: So you open the door to vulnerability, and everybody else gets to walk through it. There's this incredibly freeing quality to doing it, too, where there's suddenly enough air for everybody else to take a big, deep breath. What brought these three together initially was hip-hop. Daveed and Rafael would stay up all night in the studio just making music together.

CASAL: You don't leave, and then you go out to the car dead inside with three songs, and you play them in the car. And it's this, like, crazy moment where you've done all this work and it's just the two of you in a car before you're going to, like, pass out, listening to it the way that it was meant to be listened to and just being like, this didn't exist six hours ago. We made this. The bond in that is just powerful.

FURLAN: Just going to make a plug here for the power of shared interests - if you listen back to our first episode in this guide, that's one of our big takeaways. Go ahead. You could just add it to your podcast queue. I'll wait.

Hey, I just wanted to check in. How are you feeling? OK. So this is actually a little example of our fourth takeaway for this episode, which is ask more questions. Look. I know maybe it's super-simple, but the act of checking in, of asking questions and then - wait for it - follow-up questions is one of those really important things that you need to learn if you're going to help free everyone from their struggles with masculinity and friendship.

So, like, you know there are sometimes these moments when two guys are talking where somebody is like, hey, man, my cat is sick and we might have to put her down, and the other guy's like, man, that sounds tough, buddy, and then the conversation just sort of ends right there? I'm here to tell you that there are a thousand questions that could come after that, and if your friend shares with you that way, you should be the one to ask them.

And, like, if they don't want to talk, that's cool, too, but why not ask? I mean, how old is the cat? How long has she been sick? Is that the cat you Instagrammed (ph) a picture of the other day? How are you dealing with the grief? See? I said there are so many questions, but as LeVar Burton told us in "Reading Rainbow," you don't have to take my word for it. Niobe's here with years of research and facts.

WAY: Showing curiosity to someone's vulnerability is the best way to respond - you know, I wonder about this; oh, it reminds me of this; or, oh, that sounds hard. Ask questions about it. Ask questions to understand it more. How we become close to someone is through that curiosity, and everybody knows that when you're with a friend or a romantic partner and they don't have questions for you, that is incredibly alienating. You know, women are usually the people who are asking the questions, and it feels very alienating from the woman's perspective, and it certainly feels alienating for men as well.

FURLAN: When somebody asks questions and then crucially even checks in later to follow up, you as a friend just feel so seen in that moment. I think sometimes we feel like if we ask too many questions, it could be seen as prying or being nosy, but the stakes are so high. We're trying to change society here, people, and isn't that worth reaching out a little bit? Utkarsh is really good at this. Take it from Daveed.

DIGGS: He's, like, kind of brilliant at that - at asking questions about yourself and also really listening and then checking in, like, months later with the thing that he asked you. That's another - that's a, like, particular kind of friendship maintenance that I don't know a lot of people who are really capable of. But, you know, that's that thing. How's your dog doing? Like, how's your dog's - whatever - cold? Like, he remembers that the dog had a cold. Like, who remembers those kind of details? But he does. He is maintaining the throughline for a friendship.

CASAL: We talk about our dogs a lot more than we do about rapping nowadays, which is, I think, a great indicator of where we are as friends and what we hold important in each other. It's like, hey, man, how's Mia's (ph) stomach doing? It's not like, hey, do you got 16 bars?

FURLAN: So don't forget. Go ahead and ask a question that's going to go deeper into that freeing world of vulnerability. You're not prying. You know, like, you're on the elevator to societal enlightenment, and you don't want to be one of those people who presses the door close button just as another person arrives, OK? Press door open on vulnerability, people. And also, just a side note, you should do it in the elevator, too, because it's common courtesy. That's a free tip from me.

And you know what? While I've got you here, I just want to give you a few more little bits of advice that are from me to you, listeners. Imagine me in a leather chair in front of a crackling fire. Maybe there's a snifter of cognac on the table next to me. That's right. You have arrived at Julia's emotional labor corner.

Emotional labor is one of those things that's super-zeitgeist-y (ph), but it's also a little bit slippery to define. I'm going to define it here as emotional work that people do that is unpaid and often unrecognized. Being a good friend is all about emotional labor. Doing nice things for your nice friends builds connection.

Women do the majority of emotional labor in our society - surprise, surprise - and we are all part of a culture that just sort of lets that happen. If somebody is making plans in your group text or booking reservations for dinner, chances are high that that's a woman. Often, women are the ones initiating the plans in the first place. They're typically expected to remember birthdays and then, you know, pick up the candles for the birthday cake, too. You might think women just know how to do this inherently, but actually, it takes work. These small gestures are emotional labor, and here's what you can do to flip the script. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to pitch in.

And here's an argument - you wouldn't be listening to this episode, my friend, if you didn't want to do better. Ask your friends how their week was and then listen when they tell you about it. See who needs help and pick up that slack emotionally. I promise from the deepest part of my soul and from the coziest part of Julia's emotional labor corner, you will grow and feel better from it. And it'll help strengthen your connections with your buds, and the women in your life will thank you. Also, chances are you will probably get a ton of credit for it. The bar is literally on the ground, my dude, so step over it. I dare you.

So back to Rafael, Daveed and Utkarsh - they're at this point in their friendship where they can hold their masculinity while also being really open and vulnerable with each other, and there's somebody to thank for that, actually.

DIGGS: I get it from my father, who, like - that is his superpower. My dad - if you go out to a bar with him, like, within 10 minutes, he's giving, like - he's essentially being a therapist to, like, five different people at a bar.

FURLAN: OK, anybody who's ever seen Daveed perform will not really be surprised that he's related to a hugely charismatic guy. Niobe's research supports the fact that the closeness that Daveed has with his dad is one of the reasons that he can have these deep friendships now. Niobe says that there's one way that's super powerful to set boys up to have good friendships past adolescence - having a close relationship with a parent or another older relative.

WAY: And those boys who had very close relations with at least one parent were more likely to have - to be able to hold onto their friendships, and that makes total sense. So if you have a relationship with one of your parents - with your mom, your dad - in which you express your feelings, in which you share things that are honest and true to you, you are gaining the skills, and those skills are being nurtured by your parent.

FURLAN: And look. Don't sweat it if this wasn't your situation growing up. We're all just doing our best. So here's takeaway number five. If you are a parent or if you want to be a parent or you're standing on the subway platform near a parent or maybe you have a stepchild or some nieces and nephews, don't be afraid of really getting to know the kids in your life. It might be awkward at first. I mean, sometimes, kids are awkward, and they're new to this. But on the other side of that awkwardness is the possibility that you will teach them a skill that will help them flourish for the rest of their life.

Look. Am I trying to make the entire world one where everyone is constantly being vulnerable and asking about their feelings? Yes, OK? You got me. Get used to it. But do I think that that world is going to be better for literally everyone? Also yes.

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FURLAN: OK. It's time to say so long for now, my friendos (ph), but before we do, let's just go through all the things we learned in this episode. It's a good idea just so that you can keep everything straight. First up is don't blame yourself. You are a product of society.

PAGE MCBEE: This is a social ill, not just your problem.

FURLAN: Takeaway two, accept your own desire for intimacy and normalize it for the people in your life.

WAY: So normalize the desire for friendships, for relationships, for closeness, for intimacy, for emotional expression, for all sorts of things, right?

FURLAN: Number three, model vulnerability. Go first. Be the change. Takeaway number four, ask more questions. Be curious. And finally, we get to takeaway number five. Pay it forward, and get close with the children in your life so that they can grow up and be good friends, too.

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FURLAN: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got a whole guide on how to make the most out of travel. It's fantastic. You don't want to miss it. And if you like what you hear, make sure you check out the other LIFE KIT guides at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter. We've got more guides coming every month on every kind of topic. And here, as always, is a completely random tip. This time, it's from listener Akin Bruce.

AKIN BRUCE: Fun fact from just being a tour guide on a college campus - if you're ever trying to make friends with a fox squirrel, just try to get its attention. If you stand still and go (making kissing noises), it'll come up to you and be interested.

FURLAN: If you've got a good tip or you want to suggest a topic, email us at lifekit@npr.org. I'm Julia Furlan. It has been such a joy being with you. Thank you so much for listening.

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