Let’s begin with a story. This one’s Dr. Brené Brown’s, but it also marks the moment I realized how rare a certain approach to emotional discourse is. Brown’s known for her self-help books, a genre I don’t generally read, and for her TED Talks on the importance of talking about vulnerability and shame. She’s especially known for taking clinical research and framing it in warm, rounded, over-the-kitchen-table-styled Southern speech, which has helped her come off as approachable and relatable to a North American audience. Now, self-help books are fish-in-the-literary-barrel–easiest thing in the world to sneer at them as pap!–but there’s also a curious gendering that emerges in them, with strong secular/spiritual divides between the range for women (secular-to-spiritual) and the range for men (almost entirely spiritual).
So, they fascinate me. They seem to me a critical piece of the secular-storytelling conversation: answering a clear human need for direction and community-care, but then… perhaps also exacerbating and distending that need, too? Creating counterproductive feedback loops? Advancing sociolinguistic silos? Creating social-guidance voids that online forums for “pick-up artists” and “red-pillers” fill for secular male persons especially?
(NB: Brown, too, is spiritual, and has regarded the atheistic worldview as too bleak to handle, which makes me laugh because she’s definitely humanistic in her approach, and I wish she’d convey some awareness of what humanism is in her discussions on the theme. Ah well. At least her work stays centrally secular to reach the widest possible audience.)
In one radio interview, though (and I can’t find the original, so bear with me in my paraphrasing), Brown was asked about why she researched both men and women. In response, she relayed a story about a woman who’d come to a book signing with five copies of Brown’s work–one for herself and one for all the other women in her family. After Brown had signed them, though, she looked up to find the woman’s husband lingering by the table. His wife was trying to hasten him along, but he said he just wanted a minute to talk with her… at which point the female interviewer audibly winced and primed the audience to brace for the stereotype. Uh oh, here’s a man coming to mock her! Uh oh, here’s a man coming to cause trouble!
But Brown had no such story-beat on offer. Instead, she told the interviewer the man asked her the same question–why do you only study women?–to which she’d offered a boilerplate response about the needs of the demographic. He’d then told her that this was mightily convenient, because that woman she’d just signed five copies for? That woman who was thrilled with those books about vulnerability and shame?
She and the rest of his family would rather that he was dead than ever admit that he had feelings and emotional breaking points, too.
And then he walked away.
And there was such a poignant pause on that broadcast, as the interviewer realized this story had gone off the familiar path, and as Brown continued to explain that this changed her research focus entirely. Put simply, rather than self-help being used solely to affirm its target demographic (women) in its essential rightness, here was Brown saying that the way research had been conducted was leading to self-congratulatory silos and profound exclusivity around the most vital human conversations.
Conversations, that is, where we need all hands on deck.
Now, I don’t find everything Brown does revelatory–she has to keep her brand up now, which leads to a lot of repeat material and reframing these days–but that moment, for me, was huge. And I remember it whenever women/feminized-persons around me start to talk about emotional self-care.
The Pathologizing of Men’s Non-Verbal “Love Languages”
Okay, so there’s one other self-help concept I find a useful tool for conversations about how we care for each other, and that’s Gary Chapman’s notion of “5 Love Languages”–which can get pretty fluffy so let me strip it down to pragmatics:
- It argues that there are many ways to communicate care for family, friends, coworkers, and partners, none of which is intrinsically superior to any other.
- What matters, though, is that we learn each other’s communication styles, and make attempts to both
- avoid diminishing or dismissing acts of care that are advanced in others’ preferred ways; and
- adapt to other people’s primary “languages” when trying to convey care, instead of just assuming they’ll understand it through our preferred languages instead.
Chapman’s “5 Love Languages” are talk (obvious), touch (context-appropriate!), presence (being there, spending time especially at the hardest junctures with people you care about), presents (the giving of gifts and celebrating of major events), and gestures.
So, not rocket science, clearly–and not really innovative, either. “Gestures” is especially common to heteronormative jokes about married couples, after all. Who hasn’t heard an anecdote in which a stereotypical wife agonizes because her husband hasn’t said “I love you” in a while, while the husband has been getting up first every morning to put on coffee for them, or heat the car in Canadian winter so she’s cozy on the way to work? Or, conversely, who doesn’t know the old zinger about a bewildered husband being told he doesn’t say “I love you” enough to his wife, then reminding her he already said all that at the altar, and his word is his bond; if he changes his mind, then he’ll let her know.
Har har har.
But behind such anecdotes is also a pretty crushing two-way breakdown in communication.
And yet, it’s rare to see heteronormative self-care discourse do much but blame men for this state of affairs.
Men need to open up more about their emotions. (Talk!)
Men need to stop bottling up their emotions. (Talk!)
And men need to do all this with other men instead of pouring all their emotional weight onto female friends and partners. (Talk for the love of all that is good in the world talk talk talk!)
Whew. Okay. Anything else? (Yes–more talk!)
(Heteronormative Caveat: Poly/Queer/Disability/Furry Alternatives)
I should pause to note that you’ll already find alternative approaches in polyamorous, queer, disability, and furry communities–some of which would be interesting to see incorporated into mainstream heteronormative self-help discourse.
And yes, yes–“Furries?!” you might be thinking–but the avatar component of furdom is actual quite clever, from a cultural-anthropology level. Are you someone who struggles with temper issues in life? Well, maybe you’re a fire-breather, or prone to taking a wolfish bite from time to time. Maybe you’re friendly and active and clever, but also someone who, like a ferret, draws nippishly hard boundaries if pushed too far. Or maybe you’re an entirely shy critter, and need time and space to come out of your shell.
We all give other species a great deal more license for behavioural range, that is, than we tend to give each other. So the fur-community has actually coped pretty inventively with contemporary social estrangement by creating new, easily universalized vocabularies through which to communicate need and negotiate touch. (And is it all that different, really, than our waves of Myers-Briggs and True Colors fervour, along with other variations of that personality-testing ilk? Betcha if an industry had merchandized M-B when it was popular, there would have been a lot of persona-swag on coat lapels and at our workdesks!)
Likewise, poly communities place all-emotions-are-legit-it’s-what-we-do-with-them-that-matters discourse as the backbone of healthy poly relationships, and the key to honouring feelings on all participants’ parts as life progresses and people change. Meanwhile, queer and disabled communities are especially good at valuing “presence” as sometimes the only useful thing one can provide for a friend in need.
Conversely, though, in (white) heteronormative circles, notions of community-care and emotional discourse are often restricted to the couple and their counsellor, secular or religious. (Oh, and to agony-aunt columns, which remain a thriving industry for a reason!)
Which brings us back to this striking self-help/community-care notion in North American culture that men just need to “open up more” (i.e. with words about their emotions to other men), and then all these other problems will go away.
Case Study: Manchester by the Sea
If you want a solid visual representation of where this approach breaks down, you could do far worse than watching by Manchester by the Sea (2016), a heartbreaking film sullied only by lead-actor Casey Affleck’s sexual harassment lawsuits (which he’s not doing the greatest job overcoming by writing, directing, and starring in a movie about a world where all women die).
Putting aside Affleck’s off-screen abusiveness, though, Manchester advances a powerful point about the different ways people grieve and work through trauma, and the different ends they’re aspiring towards in the process.
I won’t spoil the movie’s devastating reveal, but in an earlier moment we see our protagonist in the hospital with family, where a fairly common form of male banter is used to alleviate tension between patient and male loved ones. This humour drives a woman among them mad, though. She’s furious with them for not being direct and serious in their speech, and regards it as the same as avoiding feelings entirely.
And yet, teasing is bonding and emotionally reaffirming. Not bullying, of course, but gentle ribbing. The affectionate names we build histories around are often coded so deeply in our love for one another that we need only invoke a particular joke or nickname for all that wealth of experience to come pouring out. (I do it myself with my dearest male friends, and have names with them in turn.)
Moreover, the film doesn’t have the expected happy ending, the one where Lee is purged and awakens, Eat, Pray, Love-style, into a new chapter of life’s great adventure… but that’s because Lee’s ends in grieving are different from his ex-wife’s. Not lesser, as much as she fears them to be–just, different. She’s moved on from their shared tragedy, we discover, and that’s great. Good for her. But Lee doesn’t want to move on, and rather than force him to do so, the movie develops an ending where other men in the family, at least, can simply accept that Lee is where Lee needs and wants to be.
Community-Care without the Gender Divide
Boy, it has been tricky to write even this much without tripping into the sort of binary male/female rhetoric I find tedious, but honestly, as a humanist, I don’t think our secular storytelling is as far from where it needs to be as social media would have us believe. I think all the pieces are on the board, but haven’t been tied well enough together.
(And how can they be, when news reports routinely remind us how many devastating acts have male perpetrators? It’s true, but it also leave us as a culture with a desperate call to fix the men! fix them now! that is, ah, at best super-counterproductive.)
On the positive front, after all, Gen Z (and Y, and X) is already getting to grow up with shows like Steven Universe and Avatar: The Last Airbender, where young male characters model and are adored for their commitments to emotional vulnerability, presence with loved ones, and choosing active listening over combat. Plenty of children are also seeing a relaxing of parental and social pressure (re: hobbies, dress, and language) to perform a sort of rough-and-tough only-girls/sissies/babies-cry rhetoric that doesn’t help with later emotional breaking points.
What would really help now, though, is if we adults could give up our rigid adherence to specific vocabularies (Myers-Briggs, True Colours, 5 Love Languages, and the like), as if any one of them offers the key to understanding human nature.
They don’t–but that doesn’t make them useless. Rather, collectively they help us remember that what community-care looks like for one person won’t be the same for everyone; and that our personal communication and conflict-resolution styles, likewise, will never be universally applicable.
Fellow feminized persons, I’m going to wag my finger especially at you here, because we have to be super-wary on this accord. After all, there’s a pretty lucrative self-help industry bombarding us with new terminology, which can be pretty disarming and–as noted above–also dangerously self-congratulatory. Who doesn’t want to believe that–at last, at last!–we’ve reached a more enlightened plain of existence because, Aha! Now we know the right words!
(Fellow atheists of all genders, I’m also raising an eyebrow at you, because we’re all susceptible to similar commercial pressures, as the targets of an equally lucrative antitheistic-book industry that thrives on us resting on the laurels as having “beaten” the lie of religion. Stay vigilant! Stay uncomfortable! Stay open to the threat of new mythology in the secular sphere!)
No, we don’t know the “right” words. We’ve found some words. And if they work for us, if those tools help us to heal and navigate our secular stories better, that’s great… but only if we’re not also using that same vocabulary, those same notions of community-care to drown out other valid ways of articulating needs and feelings, too.
Obligatory Male/Female Closing Anecdote
I floated all of this, by the way, past a male/masculinized friend of mine whose primary vocabularies for human relations come, I kid you not, from the likes of comedians Charlie Sheen and Bill Burr. And, ah… lemme tell you, you don’t get the most optimistic notions of male/female dynamics from Charlie Sheen.
These are, however, still vocabularies, so when women complain that “men never talk” I’m sometimes left wondering, what in your world constitutes “talk”? Does it need to come from a self-help book to count? If someone’s vocabulary comes from film, golf, or baseball, is that not still a means by which they’re expressing their experience of the world?
Because when I first explained Chapman’s love-languages thesis to my friend, he quickly launched into what he thought was a counterpoint–that is to say, a version of love inspired by Burr’s advice to women in the audience. Gleefully revelling in what he took to be provocative, he told me that Burr counselled women to show their love not through words but by, once every few months, just fixing their man a sandwich for no reason, no reason at all, then leaving it and a beer with him while they just… go, anywhere, away, spend a few hours with mom: whatever it takes to keep them from ruining the event by poking back in with a gratingly whispered How’s the sandwich? Just leave him to his peace and meal, Burr advises the heteronormative couples in his audience, and your man’ll be thinking about that sandwich for days.
Now that, my friend cackled as if having laid down a revelation, that is love.
To which I replied, warmly and enthusiastically, “Aw, that’s sweet. So one of Burr’s primary love languages is ´gesture´. Good on him for articulating his needs.”
And the look on my friend’s face just then… Well, let’s just say it reminded me of that interviewer’s pause, when talking with Dr. Brown about her book-signing confrontation. That same little hitch of surprise when, in the midst of preparing for a far more dramatic male vs. female show-down about what constitutes a legitimate expression of community-care… something ever so much more unifying showed up instead.
That itty-bitty yet ever-so-vital reminder that… we all just want to be seen, don’t we?
And in the ways that matter most to each of us.