Thursday, July 21, 2016

Are there patterns to male friendships?

Being friends with other men has been something with which I've struggled. I've been more at home in the company of women. Maybe it's because there's only eighteen months between myself and my sister; maybe it's because my mother has three sisters; maybe it' s because both my grandmothers are strong characters. I don't know what it is, but it has affected by experience of finding, building and keeping male friends. Like most of these things, the formative experiences are at school. There are three that stick in my mind.

The first is at nursery where we're playing a game. Someone would put one of their hands in the middle of the table. The person next to them would put one of their hands on top of the first person’s. The third person would put their hand on top of the hands on the table, and so on until everyone had one hand in the middle. Then the first person would then put their other hand on top of the growing pile of hands. Everyone else would follow. By this time there were a pile of hands in the middle of the table. The person who had initiated the hand-placing would now have to pull their hand out from the bottom of the pile and put it at the top. The next person would follow, as would the next. From there it would descend into childish screams. This went on repeatedly.

I remember one time putting my hand down on the cold blue plastic of the table. And then I realised my hand was brown and everyone else's wasn't.

The second is wanting to be good at football. Desperately. It was the most important sport in my primary school (and therefore the battleground) - and I just wasn't any good - just small and round. I remember being inspired by the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. I practised in the back garden after school. I set up obstacles indoors with a smaller ball to improve my skills. I would time myself and attempt to get quicker. It didn't work. Being good at football dictated one's place in the primary school hierarchy.

The third is sitting in my first class at secondary school. We were sitting in alphabetical order; my surname beginning with 'D' meant I was nearer the front. I looked around at all the faces. Then it dawned on me that I was the *only* person from my primary school to go to my secondary school. I knew nobody. I *had* to make friends. No pressure. Although, in this all-boys grammar school, I intuitively I realised we were all in the same nervous, oversized-blazered boat. Phew, some relief.

Combine this with regular family gatherings of grandparents, aunties and cousins; multiple conversations with people talking across each other; separated grandparents requiring separate family gatherings (a fact which was lost on me until my teenage years) and there's a good recipe for a socially-able young man. And yet always on the outside, quietly desperate to fit in with everyone else.

Not that I mind much now. In any social gathering, I'm quite happy. I'll find some connection. But it's made me think a lot about all my groups of male friends. There is something distinctive that happens when a bunch of guys gets together. At least in my opinion. There seem to be roles in which we are comfortable. When I look back to my friends at school, there was a definite hierarchy. I found it weird when I went to uni, there were similar roles that people took. And now - as a teacher - I see it with the groups of young men in my school.

From my observations and experience there are different roles within a group of male friends. The rules of the playground change little as we get older. I think there there are seven roles in any group of male friends. Some may be taken by more than one person, and they may be interchangeable, but there is one we gravitate towards.

I was best man recently for my best friend. He's one of the only people from school with whom I'm in regular contact. Even though he lives on the South Coast whereas I live in London Suburbia - about 100 miles away - it hasn't impacted our friendship (he was best man at my 2007 wedding). However, it does mean that I'm not familiar with his group of friends where he lives. After some discussion, my friend settled on a simple stag do.

We bought meat, party food and alcohol, went to the beach and built a fire.

It was a great evening - and not the stereotypical gathering of this type. We spent the evening talking, drinking, eating and getting to know each other. My friend has a very disparate group of friends. As best man (and being in the familiar situation of not knowing anyone) I introduced myself, moved between groups, collected stories about the groom-to-be, and linked everyone together. It was clear why we were all there. I am grateful that my friend has such a supportive and generous group of people living near him.

Not knowing anyone also made it much easier for me to observe. Naturally, I found myself thinking about my stag-do, and my groups of male friends. I noticed patterns.

1) Alpha: Usually physically imposing therefore De facto leader. Occasionally a bully.
2) Second: Hangs onto/ backs up the Alpha.
3) Bantered/ Bullied: Usually the butt of the jokes. Occupies an important space in hierarchy. Leveller - in the sense that it brings everyone together.
4) Weirdo: The creative, out there one. Witty and subversive.
5) Joker: verbally locquacious, another leveller, makes others laugh. Can be a second. Occasionally an Alpha.
6) Nice Guy: He's there. Reliably. If something needs doing - he'll do it - but he'll need asking. There may be more than one in a group.
7) Thinker/ Romantic: Has a tendency theorise/ over romanticise.

Some time in the last year, I read King, Warrior, Magician, Lover : Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. It describes the archetypes of masculinity - in their young and more mature states. I can see how my characterisations are essentially derived from those - although I didn't notice until the second draft of this post! This suggests that there probably are patterns to male friendships in groups. We are social animals. And a  group needs structure to function.

For men - I think we enjoy putting order to things. Perhaps as you read my patterns or those archetypes you could identify yourself amongst them. That's really the point of writing this.  I like patterns because it makes things easier to understand, connect, replicate and grow. I certainly started to think of my place amongst all this. Where are you? Where do you want to be? I see my preferred role in a group - which you may have guessed is