By Joshua Burt
05 Sep 2016
As my 40th birthday approaches I’ve done all the normal things that people do when they’re about to hit a big landmark age – I’ve arranged a party, dropped blatant hints about what I want, had heart palpitations and a massive existential crisis, and I’ve wondered where all my bloody friends have gone.
My first real “where are my mates?” conundrum took place during the party-planning segment of my slow motion journey towards the big day. I’d been jotting down the names of people to invite to my “freakout” to end all freakouts, when I realised I have exponentially fewer friends than I did for my 30th, far fewer than for my 21st or my 18th. At this rate, my 40th would basically make my 16th look like Woodstock.
So, why do I have barely any friends now? Where have they all gone? Surely the most simplistic laws of science would dictate that I’m more popular than ever? I’m socially intuitive, I’ve been here for longer, I’ve met more people, I can now afford to occasionally buy a round.
I was obviously dumbfounded, disturbed and unsettled by my surreptitious descent into unpopularity, so I did what any man on the business end of a brutal cock punch from life would do - I sat thoughtfully by a window listening to emotive Eighties ballads with tears streaming down my face.
And then, after that, I attempted to figure out where it all went wrong by delving into the trusted internet for answers.
Phase one of my Great Male Friendship Investigation began…
Phase one: Grill people on social media about making friends
I took to Facebook and Twitter and asked my hundreds of online “friends” when they last made a new pal in real life (IRL), to see if I was alone in my inability to attract new platonic same sex buddies.
“MEN,” I inquired nosily, “how easy do you find it to make new friends as you get older?”
I then awaited the tidal wave - obviously allowing the ripple of self-analysis to permeate around my social feeds first - and bang on cue (about an hour and a half later), the replies started to trickle in, like droplets of rain down a lonely window in my lounge.
“What are you on about, mate?” “I’ve literally made ONE friend in the last seven years” “I have a one in/one out policy” “Since I gave up drinking I’ve only made new friends with a retired couple, and a few local animals” “Why? Are you looking for better mates?”
The last comment hung in the air like an NBA player who can’t let go of the basket, mainly because the answer to it – whether it was meant rhetorically or not – is that I’m not sure. As with so many men, my friends have been accumulated from very specific periods of my life and it appears that, for better or worse, the accumulation slowed considerably at around 25. Before that I was making new friends by the hour, now I’d guestimate that I’ve made no more than 10 in the last 15 years. In general, we met at school and bonded over a shared hatred of geography, or we met at university, got stoned, went to a confusing club night and became blood brothers. Or we met when we were taking our first tentative steps into “adulthood”, blinking moles finally coming to the surface.
And now, for the most part, I’ve had the same inner circle for 15 years. We get together with diminishing levels of regularity – from every day, to once a month - and a core group of 7-8 has slowly dwindled to 3-4, as geographical relocation, emotional disconnection or alternative evolution have gradually taken their toll. We have in-jokes, a basic hierarchical structure, and sometimes it’s impossible to tell whether we’d still be friends if we met now. But over the years we have become interwoven into one another’s lives as best men, ushers and godfathers. We have followed the pre-ordained path of meeting girls, getting married, and having kids.
We’ve basically stuck to a script that doesn’t allow much room for more pals.
“In my experience, straight men are often far too lazy, uncertain, and set in their ways to invest in new bonds,” says my popular gay friend Julian. “You have to have a degree of vulnerability to make a new connection, which doesn’t appeal to ridiculous macho ideals once you’ve got to a certain stage of your life. Gay men are less susceptible to macho pressure which is why we find it easier to make new friends.”
Were straight men more likely to become friendless? I wasn’t sure but I made a mental note to locate my vulnerable side more often.
Phase two: Look up online statistics for reassurance (hopefully)
By now, I was in a deepening pit of self-analysis. I gazed at a wall pondering the nature of my friendships with other men - how I still operate appallingly in big groups (can’t wait for that party!), how I’m allergic to laddy guys who communicate in “banter”, how for years I’ve preferred socialising in smaller one-on-ones, or one-on-twos. I wondered if I was really that different from most blokes.
I mean, look at the Hollywood depictions of male friendship: Starsky and Hutch, Butch and Sundance, Tango and Cash, Bill and Ted. Men in movies aren’t painted as big social creatures, we’re seen as double acts, introverts, loners, or socialising in smaller collectives. Even in films like The Hangover, the riotous stag do is made up of three friends and a weird relative. Those aren’t particularly impressive numbers.
The results of my investigations online were varied at best and downright confusing at worst. The advantages of being actively sociable were outlined in the Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging, which found that people with close friendships could increase their life expectancy by around 22 per cent. And a recent experiment conducted by boffins in California deduced that male rats became significantly happier when they huddled together with other male rats.
I wondered though, would men experience a similar spike in Oxytocin (the “happy hormone”), surrounded by a bunch of non-rat man-pals? I wasn’t so sure, I’ve been to football matches and felt miserable, I’ve been to sausage-heavy rock concerts and wanted to die. It just all seems so subjective.
Still, it wasn’t all sunshine and freeze-frame high fives for male friendship - the Movember Foundation, just last year, found that one in eight British men don’t have any friends at all. I have to admit that this information made me feel considerably better about myself. In fact, I may even have experienced a microscopic hit of Oxytocin on the back of it. But I needed to delve even deeper if I was to find out the answers to the mid-life predicament I find myself in.
Phase three: Speak to an expert who really knows their onions
Finally, I came to the penultimate phase of my navel-gazing journey into the crumblier areas of male social behaviour, and I decided that the best way to successfully excavate the terrain was to talk to someone clued up on what makes people tick - which lead me to the esteemed friendship expert Dr Pam Spurr (on Twitter @drpamspurr).
I had so much I still wanted to know. Was it sweet that most of my best friends were those I’d acquired at school and uni, or was that a bit sad? Does it really become harder to make friends as you get older, or are we just using marriage and kids as a convenient excuse? At some level, I guess the real question I was asking was ‘am I normal, and am I going to be alright?’
“Of course it gets harder to make friends as you get older,” she told me, immediately quashing some of my self-doubt. “People don’t realise how set in their ways they become. During your first job, or at uni, people are up for anything – spontaneity is part of youthfulness. This means you encounter a far wider range of people who are potential friends.”
I nodded as I harked back to the days when my friendship circle felt gargantuan and infinite, like a Goliath in a hall of mirrors. Then I froze and the blood drained from my face as I thought about the times I’d sat by myself in restaurants, pretending to read books so that people thought I was an intellectual and not a massive loser. But am I so alone in that regard? Even you, dear reader, may have put up an invisible shield in social situations, whether it’s leaving a chair slightly pushed out from a table as if to subtly suggest a mate’s on his way, or - the old classic - frantically looking at your phone screen every few minutes.
Of course, being wrapped up in work and providing for a family, it was easy to ignore these social worries, but it didn’t mean they weren’t there, lingering away in the back of my mind all along. No matter the age, I get the sense that, deep down, men not only want to be popular, but, crucially, they want people to think they’re popular too. A hangup which Dr Spurr believes could be a contributing factor to men not seeking out friends as they leave the twenties:
“As people get older, they feel it’s a negative reflection on them if they’re seen to be looking for friendships. They assume people will wonder: why don’t they have friends already at this stage? It inhibits people to go any further than friendly ‘hellos’ at work, even when they meet someone they really like and think they could be friends with.
I thanked Dr Spurr for her insightful words, and disappeared into the lonely mists to draw my own conclusions.
Phase four: My own conclusions
When my investigation started out, my 40th birthday party felt like some kind of twisted lunge for validation, as if at some level more friends would equate to more general success – like I’d somehow got life right. But it’s not really like that.
More than ever in our increasingly connected world, we find ourselves in a strange time for friendships. IMHO, we’re duped by social media into thinking that we’re constantly socialising, constantly connecting with people and nourishing our friendships, but really, we’re not. We’re sitting alone in rooms on computers. We’ve not been unshackled by Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, we’ve been hamstrung by them, because we’re so busy presenting a version of ourselves and curating our lives in a way that reflects what we want you to see that we’re forgetting to just hang out together and chew the actual fat. It’s all numbers – how many LIKES we get on photographs, how many new followers we have – we’re constantly being tricked into thinking our popularity is at an Everest peak, while really that’s just an oasis in the desert, a version of the truth that mightn’t be as true as it seems.
The real truth is, like so many men, I have a healthy number of online pals who I love interacting with in the Upside Down, but in the tangible world I only really have strong, active bonds with a small handful of people who I see from time to time depending on which way the wind is blowing. I also have a wife and a child, so I don’t have many windows of opportunity to meet new people - even so, I have met other guys who I find funny and exciting to be around, but I’ve often been so caught up in the awkward maleness of being a man that I haven’t allowed myself to risk losing face by encouraging the friendship to develop.
On the advice of Julian, via the wisdom of Dr Pam Spurr, that’s going to change - my plan is to spend my forties allowing myself to be more open, vulnerable, and available to new actual friendships that happen offline.
I’ve also streamlined my party and rebranded it as a “soiree”. Just a smattering of people with very low expectations. Perfect.
[Photography: Steve Williams]
11 Jan 2017