Learning about men and what they have to live up to

When I set out to research men, I admittedly felt a little daunted by the task. I mean, would I as a woman be able to really understand what it means to be a man? Would I be able to give an accurate account of the opting out and in experiences of the men in my research project? This is something that gender scholars spend a lot of time thinking about. For example, how do I as a researcher affect the research and how does my position and perspective color the way I see the world? These are important things to reflect over. Although researchers strive to be as neutral as possible in the face of their task, we are all human and how we understand and interpret things are invariably affected by who we are.

Anyway, so when I embarked on my research project on men opting out, I set out with the intention of learning as much as I could about men and what it is like to be a man from as many sources as possible. I basically read everything about men that I could get my hands on, from research to fiction, hoping to become enlightened and better prepared for my task. I was expecting to learn a lot.

Well, the feeling of a new world opening up to me never really happened. It was almost a bit anticlimactic because I kept looking for that source that would provide me with some Earth-shattering insights, but it never came. I was starting to wonder whether I was missing something or just not seeing whatever must have been right in front of me all along. 

I mean as a sociologist and a person who has just always been interested in people and psychology in general, I already knew a lot about the societal expectations we place on men. I mean who hasn’t heard about what a ‘real’ man is and should or shouldn’t to. You know what I mean, things like men don’t cry, men shouldn’t show weakness, the strong silent type… But I thought there must be something more. 

Okay to be fair, I did learn a lot. For example, I did learn about social codes among men that I had no idea existed. That is, how men interact with each other. But on a whole, I have to say I was really struck by how stereotypical everything I was reading about really was. 

The social expectations on men are to this day really very one dimensional. Men are in a nutshell expected to be manly, strong, competitive, stoic, unafraid and definitely not show too much emotion or any weakness of any kind. The media depiction of men, whatever the genre, is also very stereotypical. It was actually quite disheartening to tell you the truth. The reason is that I know as a researcher who has interviewed men and as a person who knows men that these one-dimensional ideals of what a man should be don’t even nearly describe what real men in the real meaning of the word really are like. They are also difficult to live up to.

Men and women alike are multidimensional. We are all human, and part of being human is experiencing the whole range of emotions that are available to us. We are strong and we are weak, and we are all vulnerable at certain times in different ways. We all need love and closeness and we all have meaningful relationships we want to nurture. And we all cry. It’s part of being human.

The fact that men and boys are discouraged to partake in much of this saddens me. Researching men has taught me that social masculine ideals are very problematic in many ways as they foster violence on many levels in society (including in the home and at work) and have a negative and sometimes detrimental impact on men’s health. I put my hope in younger generations. Research has also taught me that, thankfully, there are a lot of young men who are breaking these unrealistic and unhealthy masculine norms.  

The truth is, that talking about the difference between men and women is actually not really very helpful at all. Even though there are biological differences, obviously, the actual differences in what we are like as people and what we need are really not that great. There are greater differences within the sexes than between the sexes. All men are certainly not alike, nor are all women, and thank goodness for that! So, the idea that all men should act in a certain way is simply ludicrous.

On that note, I have been going over the proofs for my book Men Do It Too: Opting Out and In this week. I don’t have an exact publication date yet, but it will be some time during the summer. In my book I write in-depth about all this, about men and the expectations placed on them; about how that plays out and the impact it has on their lives and life decisions; and what it is they want and need and how they go about creating meaningful lives. I will keep you posted!  

So what is the difference between men and women then?

I have spent the last five years studying men and opting out. It was something I knew I wanted to do right from the start, when I started working on my research on women opting out. I was convinced that opting out was much more that the women’s issue it had been treated as, and now I can confirm this is indeed true. Opting out is a contemporary issue; it’s a societal and an organizational one. All kinds of people opt out, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, marital status, whether or not they have kids… They leave because the way they have been living and working just doesn’t work for them anymore and they can’t or won’t go on the way they have. 

I get asked a lot about the difference between men and women who opt out. Are there any differences? Do they opt out for different reasons? Do they experience it differently? The answer is yes and no. 

Their situations are a bit different. This is not because of biological differences or differences in character, traits or values. It is rather because of the different expectations we place on men and women in society.

Women are taught to be nurturers, men are taught to be fighters. Women are taught to be empathetic and emotional, men are taught to be strong and not to cry. Women are told that they can be anything they want to be (thank you feminism!), men are told they need to be able to support a family. 

This may sound archaic and stereotypical to you, by I assure you that today, year 2020, this remains to be true, even in my home country Finland, that is considered one of the most gender equal in the world. 

Opting out is harder for men because part of ‘being a man’ is making enough money to support a (real or hypothetical) family. It’s easier for women because being a good woman does not (according to societal norms) hinge on having a good career, but rather on how good a care taker (or mother) a woman is. 

So yes, there are differences, but my research has shown me that their reasons and experiences are still surprisingly similar.

Both the men and the women in my research have felt the environment and/or way of working that they opted out of was unsustainable. Many of them – both men and women – felt that they couldn’t really be themselves. Both felt they didn’t have enough time for loved ones and wanted lifestyles that allowed them to really be there for the people in their lives. Many of them started working in areas with more compassion, where they could work more closely with and help people. 

The men and women that I have interviewed all went through a similar process when they opted out and in, and they had similar hopes and dreams the futures.

So yes, although their experiences are somewhat different, they are also very much the same. The differences lie in social and societal expectations and norms; the similarity consists of their humanity.

At the end of the day men and women really are much more alike than we tend to think. After all, we’re all human.

What is the new normal anyway?

Have you noticed how everyone seems to be talking about the new normal? It’s like it’s a new catchphrase that people slip into their conversations when talking about life after corona, or rather during corona since it obviously isn’t over yet. Not even for those of us living in countries where it almost feels like life is going back to ‘normal’.

I put ‘normal’ in quotation marks because what is really normal about the life we lived before corona anyway? Is it normal that mental health is higher than ever before mostly due to workplace stress and insecurity? Is it normal to spend so much time sitting still at your desk that you have chronic neck pain and you have to schedule time to just move? Is it normal to deplete the Earth of its resources in the name of prosperity? Okay, you catch my drift.

Well, what is the new normal then? We are in a situation where we still don’t know what is going to happen and how the next few months/years are going to look. During corona, the situation has constantly changed from one day to the next. There is so much we still don’t know about the virus and we don’t know whether there will be a second wave, or splotches of outbreaks, which seems to be what the experts are talking about at the moment.

Yes, a lot has happened since the outbreak, and we have had to reinvent the way we do countless things. Things that have previously been considered impossible are suddenly a necessity. Working remotely is an example. Other examples include consumer habits; we have cooked our own food more, as opposed to eating out. The staycation has become the new vacation.

And the environment has thanked us. We have seen reports of clear waters and starlit skies in cities where there have been none. However, although many of us, me included, hope for a lasting effect regarding this, a few weeks ago I read that the air in some Chinese cities is actually worse now after the lockdown has been lifted than it was before corona.

In a study conducted by YLE in Finland, about half of those who have been working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue doing so, at least sometimes, as they feel it increased their quality of life. According to a study conducted by KPMG, 64% of office workers and managers in the US have said that their quality of life improved thanks to the disruptive impact of COVID-19 (although it has been harder on managers).

But what does this really mean? Does it mean that we will take all our new insights and improve both the world and our lives?

Unfortunately this won’t happen by itself. It is simply too easy to just slip back into old habits and routines. Besides, I think a lot of people don’t want to change, but are rather just waiting to be able to go back to doing things in the ‘old normal’ way.

But seeing what the alternative could be, which many of us have done these past few months, is what makes change possible. So, I do hope we take what we have learned with us and implement the good stuff, I really do! But we have to do it consciously.

In the meantime, I think it’s a bit early to be talking about a new normal. Unless of course the new normal is that there is no normal. Yes, maybe that’s it. I mean what is normal anyway?

Racism

When I was working on my PhD, quite a few years ago by now, I read a book that made a deep impression on me: The Impossibility of Sex by psychoanalyst Susie Orbach. This was an important book for me in many ways, maybe mainly because I got ideas for how to interweave real people’s narratives with theory and debates in a way that really engages. Another thing that made an impression was Orbach’s open and unpretentious way of sharing her personal thoughts and feelings.

The book has really been quite groundbreaking, mainly because Orbach writes so openly about her work and experiences as a psychoanalyst. This is a rare treat. Doctor-client confidentiality makes it tricky, but Orbach solves that by creating fictive characters based on real-life experiences she has had during all her years as a therapist. None of the clients in her book are, in other words, real, but they are based on real situations.

However, gaining insights into the ongoings in a psychoanalyst’s office isn’t the only thing that makes the book so special. It’s also Orbach’s openness and candidness when it comes to her thoughts, feelings, and reactions in therapy situations. It’s quite unique, really. She’s so honest, open, and thoughtful about it. It’s powerful, but also helpful and valuable, not least to other therapists or those training to become therapists.

But that’s not actually what made such a great impression on me when I read the book. It was rather what she wrote about racism. When Orbach analyzed her reactions to different clients and situations, she at one point kicked herself for being racist. She had a client of a different ethnic background and skin color than herself, and she noticed that she was extra careful not to do or say anything that that would seem racist and to treat this person just as she would treat anyone else. I was baffled by this because I just couldn’t see how that was racist. Wasn’t that what she wasn’t?

Well, years later, I now think I know what she meant. The reason it was racist was that she was so conscious of the other person being of a different race, that she invariably ended up acting and treating the person differently anyway, Maybe she concerned that her client wasn’t perhaps getting the best possible care after all; at least not the care a white person would have gotten.

I have grown up abroad and gone to school with kids from all over the world. I have had friends with all possible different shades of skin color and I have never considered myself racist. I mean, how can I be racist since I don’t care where people come from or what they look like?

But the truth is, it isn’t that simple. The reason is that we aren’t just individuals, we are also all a part of our cultures and the social and societal structures that surround us. We are given values to live by as we grow up – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Much of what we have learned and gotten, we aren’t even aware of. And even if we are aware of it, it isn’t something that is easily changed or unlearned.

I know this now. I also know that I can’t just say that I’m not racist. The reason is that racism is such an integrated part of what I have been given in my culture, even though it hasn’t been conscious or consciously racist.

We know that racism is ubiquitous, but still no one – or few anyway – consider themselves racist. We are not aware of it, or if we are, it’s very hard to admit because most of us don’t want to be racist.

But as long as we don’t see it or admit it, we are a part of the problem. Because as long as we don’t, we are part of maintaining the existing structures instead of building new ones. This is actually not only true for racism, but all questions pertaining to different aspects of equality. It feels uncomfortable to think that you can both believe in equality and be a part of the problem.

I recently read an excellent book that explains all this very well: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo.

DiAngelo is a sociologist. She has been a professor but now works as a diversity educator. She writes openly and disarmingly, without pointing fingers. She explains how our society is built on a racist foundation and how racism is integrated in the very structures that surround us. With us, she means us white people.

Racism of course exists elsewhere too, not just among white people, but this book is explicitly about white people’s racism and white supremacy. DiAngelo is able to explain, in a way that is easy to understand, that our actions and what we say can be unconsciously racist even though we don’t mean them to be. Most of us don’t want to be racist and consider ourselves good people, but also good people do and say unconsciously racist things just because we have grown up with racist principles and assumptions without even being aware of it.

If we realize that this isn’t about whether or not we are good people, but about societal structures that we need to learn to recognize and question, we can work with ourselves and learn to gain a greater understanding of these underlying processes without feeling wrongly accused. If we can assume that we are good people and that this isn’t about our character as individuals but about the society that surrounds us, we don’t have to feel uncomfortable or insulted when the word racism comes up. Only then can we have a constructive dialogue around racism and work for a more open and equal world.

Let’s do that! Oh, and please read DiAngelo’s book!