Friday, September 13, 2013

I Don’t Know How to Talk to You: Conversations Among Men

It’s pretty hard to shock me. Your 16-year-old son has admitted to being a BRONY? Ok. Your year-old son stole-and rode-his 3-year-old sister’s scooter? Wow. Your brother is my mail carrier? Ok, kind of weird, because he knows what magazines I get, but ok. That wedding you were in was for a couple I knew from a completely different circle of friends, so y’all were talking about the same wedding on Facebook? Your hubby’s ex is married to WHO? Small world. You are part of a clown ministry? Seriously?

But this one, THIS ONE, left me utterly speechless. This was years ago.

“My husband doesn’t like to be around you because he doesn’t know how to talk to you.”


She elaborated. “You know, he likes hunting and fishing and, you know, you….”

Huh? Um, okay. I told her that I was sorry, but I had no idea how to respond to that.

Yes, I talk about my weekend at the craft show and how crazy the knitters were on Monday night. I get excited that I’m going to have extra sewing time this week. I live with a man. I also have a girlfriend. I flap my hands when I get excited and am prone to rolling my eyes and saying, “Oh, my gawd.” I’ve never shot anything and the one time I went fishing I spent more time being grossed out by the wriggling fish than anything else.

But this is about where the differences end.

We both work in the same industry. We both have dogs. We both like BBQ, steaks, and NASCAR. We both love action movies and have bad knees. We eat at the same restaurants. We’re both fond of sweets and know that forgetting our significant other’s birthdays is a bad idea. We like a lot of the same 70′s rock bands and think bowling and pool are fun. We believe that sitting on the beach is great but seagulls are evil. I know these things about him because his wife and I are friends.

So what’s the problem? She has no idea.

I do.

Like a lot of straight men raised in very conservative areas, I think that he can’t get past “the gay”. He can’t get past the differences, although we have more in common than not. I’m not sure that his world view would allow him to have a whole lot of things in common with a gay man. What would his friends say if they found out he was friends with a gay man? What would it do to his sense of his own masculinity?

* * *

I was recently reading an article a friend wrote about how the Green Bay Packers lost their game first pre-season game. This brought me up short, as I realized it is barely the middle of August and there are NFL games. Pre-season games. But still, it’s professional football time in America and I am about to be, shall we say, royally screwed in the realm of male social inclusion. The conversation conundrum just got a little more confusing.

Forgive me, but I am about to make a confession that will cost me my “man card”. I don’t care about football. I don’t dislike it. If it’s on somewhere I may keep half an eye on it. If it’s playing in the background, fine. If a friend invites me to a game party, I might go, more to hang out than anything else, and probably watch the game. But it’s not something I make any effort to follow, and if you asked me to match up a list of teams to cities, the only reason I could is because I’ve listened to enough people talk about it for enough years.

I know enough about the NFL to have a fairly intelligent conversation, or at least follow along reasonably well. I credit my mother for this. I grew up in a household where she ruled the (non-cable) TV, and when there was a game on—baseball, football, tennis, golf, basketball—my dad and I did not DARE change the channel. Period. This was not negotiable. She understood sports, too, and explained what I was seeing. At the time, I nodded when appropriate and made the right noises, but some of it sunk in, and I’m grateful for that.

Not caring about football did not help me fit in at school. Aside from faith (I attended a Christian high school), sports was the default topic of conversation among my peers. College was infinitely better. I found a bunch of friends who probably couldn’t tell you how many points a touchdown was worth and didn’t care. But when I left the cozy nest of classroom conversation and campus jobs, the real world was much like the stereotype that still haunts me. Default conversation topics: Who’s going to win this weekend? What’s your team? Did you see the _______ game? Because the presumption was that this is what men talk about.

Now I live in Alabama, and here, the SEC is more important than the NFL. Stories about my faux pas in that realm will fill several more posts. But in general, there is still the assumption that man=sports=talk-about-sports=not-talk-about-sports=what-the-heck-kind-of-man-are-you-you-fag….

I think many of the men around me around me are set in their ideals of what makes a man, and to them, my lack of traditional male interests puts me in the realm of “other”, “strange”, too “different”.  That my partner and I have a girlfriend? Fine, doesn’t phase them. That I am gay? Problem. But that I don’t participate in the most traditional of male-bonding conversations? Get thee away.

But with all the things going on in this world, with all of our various interests, with all of the things to ponder and pontificate and pick apart and discuss and argue and cheer and question, to be excluded because of failure to adhere to one of the most stereotypical of stereotypes? Either they’re lying, or I just really don’t get it.

I would love for someone to magically toss out the rule book on men’s conversations. Not being able to “speak the language” of the general population, and having no desire to learn it just to fakely “fit in” leads to a lot of exclusion. You find out what you didn’t get invited to, because people didn’t want to sit near you and be uncomfortable because there was nothing to say, or they thought you’d be embarrassing, or you’re just “kinda weird”.

And no matter how old you get, that still hurts. Oops, just violated a “man conversation rule”.

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