Recent studies indicate that American men are lonelier than ever, with many lacking close friendships (some women too). To help remedy this, I present to you the following top ten list with a fun playlist to match.
This week an article from the Economist popped up in my Facebook feed titled, “Why Men Are Lonelier In America Than Anywhere Else”. It caught my interest because it mirrors an NPR Hidden Brain podcast I listened to 4 years ago: “Guys, We Have A Problem: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men” which was the original inspiration for this blog. There was also a hilarious SNL skit recently called “Man Park”: a dog park for middle aged married men to make new guy friends.
It seems this topic is trending as of late, so having done lots of research these past couple years within my own friend network for Bright Sounds Dark Lyrics, I thought I would weigh in with my thoughts on this subject. I frequently hear the term “toxic masculinity” used in these conversations as the culprit for men being lonely, the idea that men are incapable of opening up emotionally and forming meaningful connections with other men. This is certainly true of some dudes, perhaps the ones who falsely believe in the “Alpha Male” myth, a concept that was retracted by wildlife biologist L David Mech who originally suggested this theory in his 1970 book The Wolf. We all know this bro-ish type. The type of guy who thinks the only way to get ahead is to be a bigger bully than everyone else. If you can step on everyone else and grab as many resources as you can in the process, then you will find yourself at a higher status in the pack. They believe that “Nice guys finish last” and aggressively pursue women using tactics they read in The Game. Unfortunately, these assholes seem to be rampant in corporate America. Even more unfortunate is that these alpha types end up with very few friends in middle age because nobody likes being around a bully. I encountered a guy like this at a bar last week who was going through a divorce and as a result was being a complete toxic jerk to everyone around him. One can’t help but suspect that his behavior was both the cause and the result of the divorce.
Here's the deal though, men are complicated creatures and plenty of us out there are not toxic. Historically speaking, I would describe most of my guy friends as being empathetic and open with their emotions, which is probably what drew us to punk and new wave in the first place, not to say that some residual toxicity may exist from being raised gen X. I think back to hanging out with my high school pals at the diner back in the 1990s. We all lived in the suburbs and didn’t have much money, so our options were a bit limited in terms of entertainment. Sure, we’d have the usual options of seeing a movie, going to a mall, or hanging out at a friend’s house to play video games, but afterwards there would be a whole block of time ahead of us where we weren’t quite ready for bed and still wanted to hang out. When all options ran out, one person would always utter an interrogatory statement consisting of a single word, “Diner?”. The response of course was an affirmatory statement also consisting of a single word, “Diner”, then immediately followed by, “Shotgun!”, thus initiating a hangout at the 24 hour Athenian Diner in Middletown, CT talking until the wee hours of the morning. The focus wasn’t so much on eating, but more on philosophizing while trying to sound as interesting, clever, and creative as possible, with an air of authority, and also while consuming as much coffee and cigarettes in the process. In many ways we were emulating our favorite slacker independent films at the time like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Chasing Amy, Clerks, Slacker, Swingers, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Coffee and Cigarettes, etc. The list goes on. In fact, the very first time I saw Reservoir Dogs I remember how much the opening scene at the diner, with Quentin Tarantino and his cohorts analyzing Madonna lyrics, felt like hanging out with my friends. I should add Seinfeld to this list too for its diner scenes and conversations about nothing.
Aside from the clever nerdy discussions though, we also opened up about our problems: girl problems, parental troubles, school stresses, personal insecurities, and other things that were bothering us. It was healthy to have that family, that was not our actual family, to vent about such things especially if we didn’t feel comfortable talking about certain subjects with our parents. It reminds me a little bit of this emotionally supportive scene from Ron Livingston talking to John Favreau in Swingers.
Fast forward twentysomething years later, I’ve discovered lately that quite a few of my middle-aged friends, mostly male and some female, are not able to hang and have conversations anymore, certainly not like they used to back in those diner days. Some are completely ADD, unable to make eye contact, and their attention continuously darts to something else in the room: what’s playing on TV, who just walked in, etc. (especially some of my NYC friends). Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a Brooklyn friend who I hadn’t spoken to in a while. After an hour of getting him up to speed with my life he said, “This is the longest conversation I’ve had with anyone in over a year”. He lives with his wife and kid and I can tell they haven’t socialized with many people due to COVID, not even on the phone. I spoke with another colleague of mine in Pasadena who has helped me out with some projects with my company. I always call her up to chat, mainly because I talk faster than I can type, and also because it’s easier to make decisions and clear up misunderstandings with a conversation. She gave a similar response, “I’ve done more talking on the phone with you these last couple of weeks than I have in years”. Another friend who used to be a complete chatterbox and schmoozer back in the day can now barely formulate any thought lasting longer than 30 seconds.
Part of me is very quick to blame technology for the problem. We now have an absurd plethora of choices to choose from to communicate with each other which no longer requires anyone to be present or to have actual conversations. No more running to the phone to see who it is, now we have caller ID and voicemail. No need to be quick thinking on our feet, we can spend more time formulating a long, detailed response via an email and do our research online to sound smart. No need to be punctual or to follow through with plans because texting makes it so much easier to postpone or reschedule at the very last minute. With Facebook we can superficially keep tabs on a large network of friends and family without anyone being vulnerable with each other. Dating apps allow us to flirt outside of our social networks in a way that is completely introverted and randomized. As a result of all these options, people have retreated to the bubbles of their own preferred mediums of communication, due to their own quirks and levels of introversion, which makes it increasingly difficult to keep in touch with friends the older we get.
A wise friend recently said to me though, “It’s not the technology, it’s the person wielding it”. So what’s the deal here, why are so many men (and some women) completely lacking in meaningful friendships in middle age in America? To begin with, we are one of the most geographically mobile countries in the world, at least according to this article in The Atlantic. The average person here relocates 11 times in his or her lifetime, most likely for job opportunities, but in many cases also to chase better climates, cheaper rents, or a relationship. Having relocated 4 times in my life I can attest that the process is never easy, especially in middle age. "A rolling stone gathers no moss" as they say, which sometimes makes me think of this Onion article titled, "Unambitious Loser With Happy Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown".
Then there is the hard divide that happens between married people and single people in America, especially for those folks who have kids and/or who move to the suburbs. This was touched upon in an episode of Sex and the City as well as a previous blog post that I wrote here. The reasons for this divide are complex but it mostly revolves around the priority shift that happens when people have kids. Suddenly the purpose of making plans and socializing is focused less on leisure, dating, and fun and more about networking with other parents as part of the communal child rearing process. Parents become friends with other parents because their kids are friends in the same school district and they do it for the purpose of taking turns watching the kids, not because of what they have in common. Just because your kids are playing Dungeons and Dragons together, it doesn’t mean that the dads or moms are going to share the same nerdy interests. Not having been married before, I imagine that this must make it very difficult for both husband and wife to make meaningful friendships with other friend-couples. The statistical likelihood of two pairs of people clicking with each other all 4 ways, and at a similar deep level as friends from high school or college, seems challenging to say the least. All friend-parents have universally described to me how utterly exhausting it is to raise children, especially in the early years. Parents turn into zombies and easily miss and/or forget to respond to invitations from friends to hang out. If they do have any time off, they would prefer to spend that time alone to rest, or to be with their kids who they didn’t get to see very much during their busy work week.
I asked my Fairfield U. friend Hot Dog Boy, married Long Island dad of three (you can read about him here) to weigh in on this subject. He was quite the organizer at one point, in fact I would consider him to be an inspiration in this department, especially the time he once talked over 300 friends to pay a $75 cover to attend an open bar boat show with his ska band Douglas Leader Orchestra back in the late ‘90s. You can imagine the level of coercion involved, but the result was a great party between good friends. He was also known for his epic “Festivus” parties at his apartment in Brooklyn back in the 2000s, usually involving a homemade turducken. Years later he now finds himself lacking in quality friends like he used to, like so many of us. He no longer organizes such events and I asked him to elaborate on what happened. He admitted that part of the problem is laziness which seems to happen with a lot of husbands. I think most men prefer to have their wives run their social calendars because it’s so much easier when someone else is handling that bullshit and not you. To begin with, social networking and planning can be an exhausting process, one that seems to get more difficult the older we get and as friends become more quirky and temperamental.
Then there are those guys, we all know them, the ones who never valued friendship that much to begin with. They ditch their guy friends the second they are in a relationship and latch onto their significant others like a leech. I think these are the type of men that the SNL Man Park skit is skewering the most. These men see friendship with other dudes as merely the appetizer leading to the main course of relationships and marriage. These guys are the most insufferable people to hang out with when they are single. A hangout with them yields superficial conversations as their eyes continuously dart towards other women at the bar, or their dating apps, not you.
And let’s face it, us unmarried folks often get a bad rap, too. I inquired with Hot Dog Boy if he happens to know any wives within his network who shun the idea of their husbands hanging out with other single guy friends. He said it depends on the friend and the conditions of the hangout. If it’s a trusted friend and the hangout is innocent enough, like going to a movie or golfing or something then no, but wives are for sure more scrutinizing of their husband’s single friends versus their married friends, especially if they are hanging out one on one and going to a bar together. There is less concern if a husband hangs out with a group of married guy friends as it will most likely make its way back to the wife via their social network if he misbehaves. A divorced female friend of mine in LA recently told me that she didn’t fully grasp the idea of having friends outside of marriage and family, mainly because many of her own friends are such jerks. This was touched upon in a Netflix series Friends From College, where many of the spouses did not like who their significant others turned into whenever they got together with their Harvard friend group. It is true that some longstanding friends can be bad for us, and a good spouse should look out for that. I think this divide is starting to recede a bit in middle age though. I’ve lately found myself being suddenly being invited last minute to hang out with other friend-couples when their own friend-couples dropped out last minute. I think COVID has led to a lot of unfriendings these last two years amongst both marrieds and singles, as the stresses of the pandemic has brought out the worst in people, not to mention politics and other factors. Divorce is also looming in the air for more than a handful of middle-aged couples within my network, an unpleasant process that I would not wish upon my worst enemy from what I’ve heard about it.
There is also the factor of mental illness and/or PTSD which can affect interpersonal relationships in middle age, especially if they go unchecked without therapy. This applies to more than a few of my male friends. According to the American Psychological Association, "Indeed, dozens of studies and surveys over the past several decades have shown that men of all ages and ethnicities are less likely than women to seek help for all sorts of problems--including depression, substance abuse and stressful life events--even though they encounter those problems at the same or greater rates as women". Click here to read more.
So whatever your reason is for not having many close friendships at this age, whether you’re male, female, married, unmarried, a parent, or childless, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to brush up on being social again, especially now that the COVID numbers are down. As a result, I present to you my top ten social networking skills you’ve lost since the 1990s. These are all based on tried-and-true techniques running Tri-State Conspiracy for a decade as well as recent experiences and observations organizing Zoom hangouts with other friends of various walks of life for this blog and for work these last 2 years. I have included a complementary playlist to match:
1. Don’t Be an Asshole: I would like to give credit to George Washington for this one. When he was 13 he wrote a pamphlet about conversational etiquette titled, “George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation”. What brought me here was Milk and Honey Bar in NYC which drew inspiration from this pamphlet for its house rules. It’s a long and clunky title, I think a catchier one would be, “Don’t Be A Dick”. Rule #1, “Every action done in company ought to be with some respect to those that are present”. It’s amazing how much America has forgotten this #1 golden rule these last few years, especially in politics. There are many reasons as to why people turn into assholes in group settings, most of which have to do with insecurity and alcohol, or perhaps unaddressed resentments that have built up over time between long term friends. In the past year, I’ve observed more than one friend putting me down or continuously disagreeing with me during hangouts that I was hosting for the main reason of trying to get my friends to like them better. Some of us who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s can remember an era of sitcoms that were built entirely upon ranking each other out, something that we often liked to bring to group hangouts to “spice things up”. This is a surefire way to piss off your friends at this age. There is also the phenomenon of “basement friends”, those critics who only point out your flaws, not your good attributes, in the spirit of “helping you out” or “toughening you up”. They will dish out lots of critique, all negative, yet ironically those same folks can’t handle any level of criticism themselves. Some people just love to argue with other people about politics in the spirit of competition and to push their buttons in the process. Don’t do it, America. Don’t be an asshole.
2. Give Undivided Attention: Rule #18 in the same pamphlet, “Read no letters, books or papers in company but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave. Come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired or give your opinion of them unasked, also look not nigh when another is writing a letter”. I think what 13 year old GW wrote in 1745 very much applies to cell phone etiquette in 2022. So many of us are guilty of this. We can’t stop looking at our phones. We leave our phones on the table during dinner, but our eyes keep darting to see if another text message came in. We keep wanting to Google information or YouTube clips to add to the conversation. It’s an addiction, in fact a female friend of mine recently became enraged when I mildly teased her about texting while I was talking because I came between her and that dopamine boost. Nothing beats good old fashioned eye contact, I tell you. It makes people feel connected and also will help you pay attention to what is being said. Hey I get it, after an hour you’re dying to see if anyone texted you so just politely excuse yourself while you do it. Your dinner guest might also appreciate the short break to check his or her phone too.
3. Take Your Time to Speak: I mostly blame corporate America for this problem. Everyone is overworked, their time is limited, and they want to get through meetings as quickly as possible. At the same time, they want to sound smart. This results in rapid fire dialogue not unlike an episode of the West Wing. This phenomenon is amplified even further if you happen to work in Manhattan. There is also the problematic issue of “jumping in”, especially if you happen to be of Italian descent like me. Some folks jump in with a quick tidbit, correction, or fact with the intent of adding to the conversation, but others are mic grabbers who will start a completely different topic or story altogether the second there is a break in the conversation and see how far they can run with it. In this type of environment, it’s impossible for others to interject and many people can’t process dialogue at this rate, especially on the west coast. While this might work at your job, it’s not so great for hangouts with friends. It brings the stress of work to a leisure setting and as a result no one is paying attention to what other people are saying, they are just focusing on their next entrance strategy into the conversation. It causes people to stutter, jumble their words, or to say things that don’t make sense. George Washington addressed this with rule #74 in his pamphlet, “Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily but orderly and distinctly”. You’d be surprised how much it can draw people’s attention when you take your time to speak, Tarantino frequently used this technique in his films. It’s also a lot more relaxing for the listener, too.
4. Put Things on the Calendar: How many times has this happened to you? You catch up with an old friend that you haven’t seen in ages. You can’t remember why exactly you stopped hanging out, yet some unseen force pulls you together, perhaps a wedding or a business trip. After the hangout you say, “That was awesome we should do this again!”. “Yeah, we should!” they reply. Then several more years go by without hanging out. All relationships take work, and this is true of friendships, too. If you really want to keep the friendship going, you have to put in the effort and make concrete plans, otherwise that relationship will fade. It’s a simple rule but we all forget it so easily. Some folks don’t want to commit to anything due to “FOMO” and want to leave themselves open in case something better happens to show up on their Facebook event calendar. Or perhaps they will tentatively commit but keep pushing the date because other things keep coming up that are more important to them. I just have but one strategy to deal with such friends. At the end of every hangout, whenever it does happen, and whenever it reaches that point of, “Yeah, this was fun let’s do this again!”, take out your phone, open up your calendar, and say, “Let’s put a date on the calendar right now. When are you free?” and note their reaction as well as their ability to follow through. Take the pressure off by saying, "This is a tentative date, we can kick this around a couple of times". This to me is a good litmus test to see if a friendship is worth continuing. I know some folks are more organized than others, but if you’re middle aged you really should know how to keep a calendar. It’s what we call “adulting”.
5. Consistency: Ask yourself how frequently you want to see your friends and check in with them as well. Define an agreed upon frequency of hanging out and stick to it. I recently told my friend Kevin after a hangout on Zoom, “Hey, how often do you want this bullshit from me in your life?”. He replied, “Um, how about every two weeks?”. Done. Everyone’s personal networks are a bit like a galaxy, with some celestial bodies orbiting more closely and more frequently than others. Once you know the regularity that works, stick to it. Put time in the calendar (see #4 above) and follow up on it. Consistency is king.
Okay full disclosure, I can't think of a good song to match this point. Someone help me out here.
6. Take the Lead Once in a While: Everyone wants to have a rich social life with good friends, but most people forget the work required to organize activities with friends, especially if they rely on someone like their spouse to do it. Whether it’s something simple like meeting for dinner, throwing a party, or tackling larger challenges like organizing reunions or vacations with friends, there is a certain level of effort required. You have to take the lead once in a while. We always rely on friend group leaders to organize activities not realizing how much it exhausts them because they are always the ones expected to do it. Everyone needs to pitch in and take turns in this department. You have to actively ping people to gage interest and to find out when they are available, some slight nagging may be required. You have to do your research and come up with options that might appeal to your friends. Most importantly though, you have to get people excited about the activity in question. It’s more than just posting an event on Facebook or Google calendar, you need to have conversations with people one at a time. I honed this craft in the later years of Tri-State Conspiracy when we would promote shows at the Bowery Poetry Club. Prior to each event I would hand out flyers at other ska, punk, and rockabilly shows and would make the effort to talk to each person in order to hype up the show. There is salesmanship required for sure. I would also call or text each friend individually and custom tailor the message to each person to talk them into coming out. It’s a bit more personal than just sending out a blast on email, Facebook, or group text. This is how things got done back in the day and it still works. Maybe you’re more of an introvert who doesn’t like giant parties, in which case start small and work your way up.
7. RSVP: Are you coming or not? If the date is bad what is a better date? It helps folks in #6 above from getting burnt out. If you are coming, please do your best to commit or it will lead to further burnout in the realm of true social networking. Just hit reply already, damnit!
8. Less is More: Anyone who takes the Meyers Briggs test gets asked if they are the type of person who prefers fewer, closer friendships or to have numerous but more casual ones. This usually divides folks into the “introvert” and “extrovert” camps. I feel that everyone needs at least a few close friends, which becomes challenging when everyone is trying to follow everyone on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Why follow someone who you have no plans to hang out with anytime soon? Why not get to know your close friends better and hear about what’s really going on in their lives with a phone call or a hangout? It’s amazing what you will find out about people during conversations that you will never see posted on Facebook. Unfortunately, I feel that Facebook/Instagram culture has pushed everyone more into the camp of collecting as many friends as possible. It’s all about being tagged in a photo with a large group of “friends” to show off how popular you are. A female friend of mine in LA, who was recently tagged in such a photo during a recent trip to Hawaii with friends, complained to me afterwards about how everyone mostly fought with each other during the trip. I’ve been on a couple of those trips with other guy friends myself, one that almost led to a major blowout at the House of Blues in Las Vegas. Be choosy about who you hang out with. If you organize an outing and only one person shows up, appreciate that person and spend some time with them. You know what the best sized group is for a conversation? Three or four. Large groups of ten people or more becomes too unwieldy and chaotic. You know what else is a lot of fun? Having a one-on-one conversation with someone. So much more undivided attention and room to speak. Quality over quantity, man. Even Hot Dog Boy agrees that there is only so much time for friends and that we need to prioritize. At this age we don’t need to fill a boat with friends, filling a diner booth should be enough. Just be sure to follow Uma Thurman's advice and shut the fuck up once in a while when you do.
9. Be A Chill Host: This is a skill that often does not come naturally, especially if you are on the introverted side of the scale. My best advice here is, “A relaxed host is a good host”. Do whatever you can to make the environment more relaxing for yourself and your guests in turn will feel relaxed. This will result in a solid, long-lasting hangout. Music sets the tone for sure. If loud noises set off triggers, find a place that’s more quiet and easier to chat. Tying in with number 8 above, don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you organize anything overly ambitious, especially if you are out of practice, you will turn into a High Strung Mess.
10. Acceptance: If you feel tired trying to continuously get certain friends to make plans then perhaps you are just not a priority in their lives. Accept it and move on. Focus on the friends who reciprocate. If you find that some friends aren’t putting in the effort, don’t invest too much time or at least have a realistic understand of what you are going to get out of the friendship.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Feel free to post more suggestions below!