How Men Talk

Action, Masculinity, and the Space in Between

Without all the yard signs and baseball caps, a presidential election is just a bunch of talking. Candidates rally their supporters with rousing speeches, debate their opponents at state colleges, and repeat canned lines to tenacious reporters. This election, however, introduced a new form of public speech: “locker-room talk.”

In high school, I was a bench-riding power forward with a decent free throw, eye for rebounds, and no confidence. The only person with less faith in my game-time abilities was my apoplectic coach. This was a man who found new and surprising ways to alienate kids across race and class—from criticizing how we wore our pants to lecturing us for missing practice when we took the SAT. If your vision of high school sports is Coach Taylor from “Friday Night Lights” whipping a rag-tag bunch of misfits into state champions with tough love and a simple code of conduct, try instead to imagine Buddy Garrity on a hot day with a case of indigestion.

Which is to say: we had no vision, heavy hearts, and often lost.

But we nonetheless spent a lot of time in locker rooms, before and after six practices and two games a week. Growing up, the “Swedish Women’s Ski Team” was a soft-porn stand-in for a young man’s sexual locker-room fantasy. (Where this cliché originated, I don’t know.) But our locker-room reality was a nightmare of loutish boys in the nascent bodies of irresponsible men—14 frontal lobes a good ten years from reaching full maturation.

Yes, the talk was blue. Every other word was a curse. But the only genitals we ever talked about grabbing were our own. If sexuality was a factor at all, it existed at the complicated nexus of homosocial structure and homoerotic desire. In other words, why #34 snapped me in the ass with his towel I’ll never know. I suspect he did it because he could. He had to shower, and I had to change into a fresh pair of boxer shorts at some point. Case closed.

We listed the girls we weren’t having sex with. And if there was sex, the account was like a lesser R. Kelly cut: a generalized version of an act that never happened the way it was reported. We weren’t one for details. Because sex in the male mind tends to be more about the post-game stats than the game tape. Put simply, boys don’t talk—they act.

And not a lot changes in manhood.

I recently started leading a men’s group at the mental health facility where I intern. It was something I always had in mind but never mentioned to my supervisor. The psychoanalyst in me might consider, What was my “resistance”? In technical terms, this is a sort of automatic defense against making conscious what is unconscious. Perhaps I thought she might say no, but the point is I never asked.

And yet it happened the way it should.

We didn’t impose this group on the patients. Instead, the men themselves requested it. This is, therapeutically speaking, a huge step. At school, we might say they have a desire or an urge to talk. Instead of smoking another cigarette (or worse), they’re choosing to spend 45 minutes talking—and listening—to their peers.

Freudian hokum aside, the basic goal of psychoanalysis is to help a client put confusing feelings into words rather than acting on them. Therapy is the sort of “practice” relationship where one can work on how he or she communicates before stepping onto the court for the big game (so to speak). We’re all in some kind of relationship—whether with a friend, coworker, or partner. Now imagine being able to acknowledge, manage, and then articulate your frustration instead of sending that passive-aggressive text or banging dishes around in the sink.

In working with the mentally ill, I’ve learned a lot about how us men communicate—and how we don’t. And it’s encouraging that the men with whom I’m working acted on a desire to talk. As a student, I’m still learning how to best operate in a therapeutic setting. But I’ve already experienced a key principle: don’t get in the way of someone willing to put his own “self-work” into words.

Again, men don’t talk—we act.

We play sports, we go fishing, we rock. We also abuse our partners, commit mass shootings, and sign regressive executive orders surrounded by our male peers.

The point of this (albeit dramatic) oversimplification is to convey a struggle I’ve faced myself. In my own analysis, I’ve confronted a fair amount of “acting out” in my past—from soaking the living-room couch with my own urine as a toddler to punching a wall in my 20s after an enraging day of work. Each tantrum was an essential step in my emotional development.

Psychopathology isn’t limited to men. But I find, anecdotally, we tend to act out on these pathologies more than women. (This isn’t to suggest that there’s necessarily a gender correlation when it comes to feelings of anger or rage.) For those of us not struggling with mental illness, it might be difficult to understand just how much work can go into voicing one’s aggression rather than acting on it. But it can take an even greater effort to simply listen to someone else reveal their emotions.

That’s why, ultimately, I don’t see myself “leading” this men’s group. I have to put as much work into being an active listener as the participants put into expressing themselves. In other words, I have to resist acting on my desire to thread lofty interpretations like a star point guard might make a flashy no-look pass.

We are, after all, a team.

This question of leadership, particularly among men, is fraught. The term might suggest confidence or resolve. But we also tend to make it synonymous with masculine qualities like strength—the kind of stereotypical manhood we fetishized in the presidential election. Look back to the winning team’s signature MAGA baseball cap. Is there a more quintessential emblem of American masculinity? (Short of maybe a gun or actual penis.)

The campaign was as much a referendum on our fantasies about what leadership—and, in turn, manhood—should look like as it was about any of the myriad issues the pundits still debate on cable news. 63 million Americans voted for a vision of governance where facile declarations produce straightforward action. (Let’s put aside, for the moment, any of the hate, bigotry, misogyny, or xenophobia behind these edicts). As a vote for unmediated action, the 2016 election was a repudiation of ambiguity and defense against healthy debate.

Which brings me back to “resistances.” Defense mechanisms are tricky. They can protect us from complicated and uncomfortable feelings. But this safety can also reinforce destructive thoughts or unhealthy self-perceptions. Think about a time when you might have said “I’ll never fall in love.” Now try to think about how not being in love might have served you. So while a defense might make us feel better in the moment, the underlying emotions must find a productive outlet eventually.

So, to the headline: How do men talk?

It’s easy to suggest that men avoid talking entirely or that crude locker-room banter is a defense against embarrassing feelings. (Look, showering in front of another boy can be terrifying—so, why not call your teammate “gay” for doing it?) And it’s even easier to interpret any physical action, like sports, as ducking genuine communication. A friendly game of pool might become a proxy battle for physical dominance, but a lot of communication can happen in the space between turns.

It’s this time within the lines that really interests me—the silent communication of men just being together. I’ve noticed that this silence has been one of the most healing aspects of the men’s group I facilitate. No matter what comes up, the guys spend 45 minutes in each other’s presence—existing in their own subjectivity.

And there’s tremendous therapeutic power in simply being, in stillness, together.