One Punch A Year: Thoughts On Improving Male Friendships

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Most of the women I know communicate differently than my male friends do. And by differently I mean more effectively. I’m not talking about the easy conversations, where guys seem to hold their own. I’m talking about delivering hard messages. There my female friends absolutely crush it. They know what needs to be said, when it needs to be said and how it needs to be said. 

By contrast, male communication in my tribe is at once more childish and complex. Perhaps it’s better to say more childish and ritualistic. You know what? Let’s just stick with more childish. After all, we’re the gender that debates endlessly whether it’s better to be 3’8” or 8’3”, how long one could last trapped in Wilford Brimley’s laundry hamper, whether Tommy Lee Jones acts or just kind of plays Tommy Lee Jones, and whether that’s even a problem. But speak harsh truths to one another with timeliness and empathy? It’s the two-iron in our emotional golf bag: few of us even carry it, and fewer still know how to hit it.

Some of this is simply a lack of concentration, and for that men aren’t entirely to blame. I imagine classical music playing in women’s minds as they progress through their conversation points. Adagio at the outset, andante leading into tough news delivery and then allegro at the conclusion. Message delivered, with elan – even the Romanian judge agrees. Alas, as men strive for message discipline there is no calming soundtrack, only random contributions from our subconscious minds such as these: yoga pants at 3:00 … find out what conditioner Hal Holbrook uses … how great is Spies Like Us? … I hope Linda in 8A goes as a nurse this Halloween … you’re out of Golden Grahams.

In other words, we men do the best we can with what we have, and the results are not pretty. We fail on the substance prong, what needs to be said:

Colleague: Jim deserves the promotion. His sales numbers speak for themselves.

What I say: They’re not bad numbers. But I don’t think he’s ready for a management role.

What I think: It’ll be a cold day in hell before I promote Jim. He went cleats-up on me in regionals back in ’88.

If somehow we get the substance right, we mess up the timeliness part, when it needs to be said:

Me: Jim, remember when you slid into me at second base cleats-up? That was really bush league.

Jim: That was thirty years ago. We’ve been riding this train together for what, twenty of those years – and now you say this?

Me: It’s been on my mind.

And then in what ensues, we blow the empathy part, how it needs to be said:

Jim (getting emotional): I’m sorry about that. I was in a dark place back then. Lots of unresolved anger when my dad left us. I must have transferred that onto you…

Me: Easy, Dr. Freud. I don’t need the whole back story. And get a hold of yourself. It’s not like your dog died.

This isn’t healthy. It isn’t mature. It also isn’t changing. So rather than have men carry all that anger around for so long, here’s what male friends should be able to do: once a year, just haul off and punch each other. Think of it as a needle exchange program for the emotionally stunted. No low blows or rabbit punches, even stomach-only would be fine. Nobody’s entering the octagon here. No marks on the face that you have to explain at work, or injuries that take you out of the Member-Guest. I still need to think through weight classes. I can’t have a heavyweight hitting a bantamweight, even one that yammers on and on about how grounded he feels after Bikram Yoga. But I think I have the timing right. More frequently than once a year encourages excessive violence, while less frequently provides insufficient relief.

Why could this work? Because much of what Homo Sapiens Americanus knows about male interaction, he learned from Westerns. Strong, silent cowboys didn’t gab incessantly when they didn’t see eye to eye, they threw hands. Afterward they dusted each other off and, the air cleared, were able to work together and rid the town of cattle rustlers. That’s all I am trying to recapture here. I know some ideas seem great at first, like dating a Cirque du Soleil gymnast. But after a couple of mornings sharing the sports page with the fire-eating Garbonzo brothers, you realize it’s not worth all the crazy that comes with it. This isn’t like that, this idea has staying power. Even Jim himself agrees that … wait a minute … what’s that, Jim? Oh man, you got me good with that punch. Right in the stomach.