Up until recently, male friendships in my life were all about football, banter and belly laughs. Even if my mates and I happened to talk about something more serious – such as new relationships, or career moves – it would be framed in terms of fun and laughter. It was as if, by hanging out in a pub together, we were keeping to an unwritten rule not to get too real. To escape from the heavier or messier aspects of being.
There’s nothing wrong with this kind of friendship. It comes with some huge advantages. But when my life became more difficult in the shadow of Covid, a few years back, I began to yearn for something more. I craved something more profound from my friendships; to be together with people whom I could support and share with (and vice versa). I wanted, in other words, to mirror how the women around me connect.
Growing up, I heard the phrase “man up” over and again. It was a code that seemed to mean I should roll with life’s punches. Like many men, I learnt to sugar coat my problems; to play them down or pass them off as a joke (if I acknowledged them at all). The idea of talking openly about any issues I had with my mates, particularly blokes, was just not in my DNA.
Women, on the other hand, have a different approach – at least in my experience. Having grown up with two sisters, I sensed early on that women are better at knowing how to be there for one another. They listen and lean in together to whatever life throws their way.
This remains true today. From my wife and Flash Pack co-founder, Radha Vyas, to my sister-in-laws and other female friends, I see all around me how women are more proactive about friendships. They show up when the going gets tough. And they intuitively connect on a deeper level, where some men – the ones I’ve known, at least – might shy away.
This isn’t because men don’t want to be there for one another. They just don’t know how to. And many, like me, have been conditioned by the belief that we should somehow mask our feelings.
So, part of my recent mission to rebuild neglected friendships has also involved pushing back at this tendency. I’ve tried to stretch the boundaries around which my male friendships, typically, have aligned; creating space to share beyond the banter. Here’s how you can do the same:
Listen to your intuition
Post-Covid, it feels like there’s more scope for men to talk to one another about their struggles. But you still need an opening gambit for that conversation to happen.
A few years ago, one of my friends, Rob – someone who, like me, is also a business founder – reached out on WhatsApp to ask how I was doing. At the time, Radha and I were working all hours to revive Flash Pack following the storm of the pandemic. Our bid would succeed but we didn’t know that at the time, and things had been tough.
Instinctively, I picked up the phone and called Rob. We ended up having this long, meaningful conversation. He listened intently to everything I said, bringing the aerial view of an outsider’s perspective. Rather than coming in strong with his opinions, he simply encouraged me to talk, and reassured me that I would get through this horrible chapter.
I felt overwhelmed with emotion. It was more important than I could ever have imagined simply to speak to a friend and explain what I was going through. Looking back, I recognise that it’s an experience I might easily have missed, if I’d done what I normally do and replied with a dashed text.
The lesson? Take a risk or two in reaching out to other people. And follow your gut in responding when they reach out to you. People are there, they will listen and their support will be golden. But you need to be willing to make the move.
Break free from the mould
I feel like a bit of a fraud talking about how to create deeper friendships, because it’s something I’m still working on myself. But that’s how I know how important it is.
I meet so many men who are really struggling. They’re finding life hard but they’ll never admit it, or open up to their friends about it. Rather, they hide behind a layer of jokes, performative humour and a determination to gloss over life’s bumps.
I really feel for them, because that mask is familiar to me. All too often, we reach for a default of lightness and dismissal, when actually what we want – and need – is to share. When I meet someone now whom I believe is hurting, even if I don’t know them that well, I try to start that conversation that drills into how they feel. It’s not easy, because we’re so used to relying on banter. But with conscious and collective effort, it can be done.
Be willing to be vulnerable
Getting people to open up to you is a matter of trust. You can’t hope that someone will lose their filters around you if you’re still acting like a closed book. For me, part of the process of creating deeper friendships with men has meant casting a light on my own vulnerabilities. I try to be open about what I’m going through, and the things that worry me; and I’ll aim to introduce that conversation fairly early on in a friendship, too.
Doing so gives me room to be authentic and honest. But more importantly, it gives permission to other people around me to do the same. By doing so, we start to build the foundations of something substantial; a bond that doesn’t need to be faked or tiptoed around.
Just spend time together
Building friendships takes effort. Even following my wakeup call on the topic, I still have moments where I let things slip. During those times, typically it’s my wife, Radha, who gives me a nudge to go hang out with my friends.
Every time I do, my energy increases tenfold. It’s so liberating to be together – chatting about anything and everything – beyond the distractions of daily life. It’s a brilliant feeling and it’s hard to replicate anywhere else.
What I’ve learnt from all this is that it’s OK to have friends who are just great fun to hang out with. And it’s OK to have people with whom you can listen to and share. But the best kind of mate will hit the middle ground. They’ll be someone who does both.
Women create a lot of psychological safety in their friendships that allows them to open up to one other. And as a result, they enjoy deeper and lasting connections. Men can do the same, but losing the “man up” attitude is an ongoing process. It’s taken me 41 years to get to this point, and I’m still working on it. The rewards, however, are more than worth the wait.
Lee Thompson is co-founder of Flash Pack, a group travel company that specialises in small group adventures for solo travellers in their 30s and 40s. Find out more about how we work, and our mission to build a global community of friendships.