SYDNEY. Most of what I was thinking about in LA (getting ahead and making moves), I am no longer thinking about down under. Almost everything that concerned me in LA is of little concern to me in Sydney. Disappointments in California have largely left my mind in Australia. Frustrations that bugged me in Beverly Hills are milder on Bondi Beach.
I am talking about degrees of concern here, not states of absolute concern vs no concern.
Wherever you go, there you are? That is only partly right, because who we are is largely constructed by where we are and with whom we are. I am no longer the person I was in Los Angeles. That person only exists in Los Angeles. When I lived in the Napa Valley and in Auburn and in Orlando, I was different from LA Luke.
There is no true self. We are usually different in different situations. The most prominent exceptions to this are addictions and personality disorders. If you over-eat or over-debt or under-earn or go manic or drown in depression everywhere you go then these compulsions to participate in your own destruction appears to be essential to who you are without recovery. People talk in AA about doing a geographic ala moving with the hope that your problems with addiction will disappear. Almost by definition, if you have an addiction, this won’t work. If you can move to a new place and stop acting out, then the classic 12-step approach would suggest you don’t have an addition. I don’t have a strong ideological commitment to this addiction as disease model, I just see it pragmatically helping people including myself (under the moral model where my failings reflected bad character, I just increased in self-loathing and didn’t get better) but there may be more profound explanatory models.
I’m sitting here in Sydney on a Sunday afternoon thinking about the Dallas Cowboys playing the Green Bay Packers tomorrow morning Sydney time and I am trying to figure out where I will see the game. Without social support, the NFL is not nearly as compelling to me. This must be why the rabbis counseled Jews to not separate yourself from the community and to never step foot in a church service. Where you are and what you do is often more likely to shape you that any inherent qualities or commitments you might believe you have. We are not the buffered, strategic autonomous rational beings that the moderns conceive. We are porous, self-centered, self-deceiving beings who tend to take the easy way out, just as the ancients believed.
I spent a year in Australia after high school, and when I returned to Sacramento in June of 1985, my interest in sports was less than half as intense. That fall of 1985, when the Kansas City Royals met up with the Saint Louis Cardinals in the World Series, for the first time in years, I had no interest in watching.
So what I care about is in large part socially constructed. Those parts of me that I think are essentially me are not essentially me, they are contingent and socially constructed. Change the contingency, change the society, and many of those essential parts of me are either gone or diminished.
I have a wildly successful friend with a rich husband who lived for years in a beautiful home in a safe part of Los Angeles but she had trouble sleeping. When she moved to Europe during Covid, her sleeping problems disappeared.
Living in many of America’s big cities, one is constantly aware of crime, homeless and social decay. That angst disappears in Australia.
America’s culture wars have about one-tenth the intensity in Australia.
In Los Angeles, there is widespread dissatisfaction with crime, homelessness and the inability of the political process to meet the challenges of the city. In Sydney, I am not detecting similar amounts of rage and frustration. I’ve been here nine days and nobody has wanted to talk to me about Australian politics or Australian culture wars. They just don’t matter much. I’ve heard only one angry outburst. I’ve heard no police sirens. I’m not detecting rage and despair in Sydney’s eastern suburbs (the most affluent parts of Sydney).
Friends seem easier to make and maintain in Sydney than in America. Loneliness is a major news story in the United States and England, but not so much in Australia. Why? Australians have mates.
If I am right that friendship is more prevalent in Australia than America, why is that? One explanation is that the culture war is less important here. Another explanation is that Australians are more homogeneous. The more diverse the population, the less people have in common. In America, everyone is uncomfortable because of diversity. You go through the airport and you are treated like a potential enemy. You go through the airport in Australia, and you are more likely to encounter people like yourself.
Steve Sailer noted that Australia is the best place in the world to be an average bloke. Australia’s more restrictive immigration policies ensue easier living standards for its citizens (wages are high, and family formation is more affordable).
Another explanation is that Australia is more communal while America is more individualist. The great American value is freedom while the great Australia value is fairness. These differences in emphasis might largely account for the greater strength of friendship in Australia as compared to America.
How loneliness is killing men
Back in 2008, a small but very cute study asked people to stand at the bottom of a hill, look up and guess how steep it was. Some people were there alone, others accompanied by friends. The hill, on the campus of the University of Virginia, had an incline of 26°. But to the people who were there with friends, it looked a lot less. Compared with those who turned up on their own, they significantly underestimated the gradient. The feel-good lesson? Everything looks easier when there’s a friend by your side.
Yes, mate, the benefits of friendship are profound. Having a strong social circle is associated with a longer life and fewer illnesses. Your pals lower your blood pressure and trigger positive chemicals in your brain. People with a strong social network are less stressed, more resilient and more optimistic. They’re more likely to be a healthy weight and less likely to suffer cognitive decline. They also enjoy some protection from cancer, heart disease and depression.
But there’s one group – a big one – that is missing out on these benefits. Men are lonely. Growing numbers of men are standing at the bottom of that hill, alone and overwhelmed, as surveys point to a recession of social connection among those of us with a Y chromosome.
I suffered from poor health for most of my life and the prospect of a walk was not always an enticing one. But when I walked with a friend, the miles flew by. Almost all of my challenges seem easier when I have friends. I can talk about what is bothering me and not only diminish my pain, but gain new insights to overcome my problems. That sense I am not alone makes me feel stronger, and when I feel stronger, I make better decisions as I see things more clearly, I behave in a more pro-social manner, and as a result of these qualities I have fewer problems, I feel happier, and my focus shifts from my own pain to helping other people.
On the other hand, when I had no ride to the hospital, when I saw no way out of my misery, when I felt like the world was shutting its doors to me, those were dark self-centered days indeed.
A YouGov poll in 2019 concluded that one in five men have no close friends, twice as many as women. In 2021, the Survey Center on American Life found that since 1995, the number of American men reporting that they had no close friends jumped from 3 to 15 per cent. In the same research, the number of men saying they had at least six close friends halved from 55 per cent to 27 per cent.
This rings true to me. One part of American life I have found to have all the virtues of mateship is traditional religion. Loneliness is not a common problem among normal Seventh-Day Adventists and Orthodox Jews.
Loneliness is a health hazard, as dangerous as smoking or alcoholism, according to some research.
A major study by scientists at Brigham Young University in the US found that long-term social isolation can increase a person’s risk of premature death by as much as 32 per cent. For this reason, some have called it the ‘shadow pandemic’. It was brought into focus during the COVID-19 lockdowns, when all of us were isolated and friendship became a hot research topic again, but it had spread around the world long before the novel coronavirus had.
What is the cause and what is the effect? Are dysfunctional maladjusted anti-social people more likely to be lonely? Of course. On the other hand, I have known mateship and I have known loneliness, and mateship is better, and I feel like I have made decisions that moved me toward more of one than the other. There is room for agency.
“It’s a story I’ve been telling for 30 years,” says Prof Niobe Way, of New York University. As a developmental psychologist, Way has spent much of her career interviewing boys and men about their relationships, and how they change over time (documented in her book, Deep Secrets). She believes that hyper-masculine ideals are stripping young men of close friendships and the intimacy that goes with them.
“When you speak to boys aged 11, 12 or 13, they have this natural capacity and desire for closeness. And it’s not a bromance thing, it’s not just wanting to have dudes to hang out with. It’s wanting someone they can share their secrets with,” she says. “Then you speak to them again around 15 or 16 and you get this stereotype creeping into the responses. They start saying things like, ‘Oh sure, I have friends, everyone’s my best friend, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter.’”
Way admits that young men being macho about their friendships is nothing new, but she thinks it’s telling that a change occurs in adolescence that – seemingly – frames the way a lot of men form and maintain their relationships all the way through adulthood.
Masculinity seems less charged and contentious in Australia, the one first-world country where men and women naturally segregate. If you are a bloke at a barbie in Oz, it would be weird if you spent most of your time talking to sheilas. It is accepted wisdom here that men and women prefer their own company and have separate concerns.
If you’ve ever watched a sitcom, you know how it goes: men have superficial or transactional relationships with each other and bond by banter as they watch sport or drink beer. Women, in contrast, have deep and emotionally vulnerable conversations marked by shared secrets and interpersonal closeness. The funny thing is, these sitcom stereotypes are borne out by research.
“One of the main things we’ve shown is that the two sexes are very different in their social style,” says Prof Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford whose work centres on social bonding. “The girls’ social world has been built around personalised relationships. It matters who you are, not what you are.
“For men, what makes the difference is investing time in doing something together. It might be meeting up for a pint or arranging to climb Ben Nevis. The activity is irrelevant as long as it’s a group activity – and that often doesn’t involve a lot of conversation. There’s a bit of banter but really, the content is close to zero.”
That rings true. On the other hand, male friendships don’t seem to be volatile as female friendships. And male banter, in my experience, is a trope that eases the way for more substantive interaction. When I get together with my mates, we start out abusing each other for a few minutes, and then we get to the guts of our lives. With other male friends, we largely skip the banter and just go for the guts. And much of this varies with the circumstance. If one of us is in distress, we don’t usually banter about it.
The difference between male and female friendship is often characterised as side-by-side versus face-to-face relationships. When men meet their friends, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder: at the bar, at the football ground, fishing at a river. When women meet up, they often sit across a table from each other and talk.
That rings true.
I wonder if reduced levels of friendship among first-world men is in part a reflection of the growing acceptance of homosexuality. Going with a mate to see a play or to see flowers blooming used to be normal. Now it is thought of as gay activity, and most straight blokes don’t want to look gay. Now that many weddings are super gay, I expect that many straight men are more reluctant to marry.
The emotional investment and frequent contact that women prize is not as important for men, Dunbar says. Men can go months without seeing a mate but still consider that person a close friend. Could this superficial approach to friendship explain why men are losing friends and more likely to feel lonely?
It’s almost certainly a factor, but it’s not the only one. Sociological and generational changes also play a part. It was only a few generations ago that, for the majority of people, friends were constants in our lives, like family. People moved less, travelled less, changed jobs less. Today, our mobility – literal and figurative – means that friendships can more easily come and go.
Male friendship depends upon common activity. With the decline in organized religion comes a decline in common activity. Also, fewer exclusive roles in religion, charity and wider society are now reserved for men. As men don’t like competing with women, they’d rather drop out.
Loneliness and isolation can also happen as a consequence of other things, says Dr Mike Jestico, a psychologist at the University of Leeds who also works with local men’s groups in the city. “Homelessness, addiction, breakdown of family home… Men are more likely to experience these than women, leading to isolation,” he says.
“Isolation is more likely to happen to men with lower incomes, as social experiences tend to cost money. One of the men in my research sang in a social singing group. But when the group moved venues, he couldn’t afford the bus fare to travel, thus increasing his isolation.”
We’ve had structural legal changes in the West over the past 60 years, including civil rights legislation that makes it increasingly difficult for men to enjoy male-only spaces. It used to be that men gathered at service clubs such as Kiwanis. Now that these clubs are co-ed, men have dropped out. The presence of a single woman in a male group completely changes the dynamic.
Black people know that just by walking down the street, you can fall through any number of trapdoors that lead to a bizarro world where up is down and your life is in danger. You can be bird-watching in Central Park like Christian Cooper, and then the next thing you know, a white woman is calling 911 and saying you’re threatening her. You can be jogging in Georgia like Ahmaud Arbery when three men start chasing you in trucks and suddenly you’re running for your life. Even if things don’t spiral that far out of control, Black people are often assumed to be someone we are not. Even if you’ve got on a suit, you may be a street criminal, so you’re vulnerable to cops and Karens alike. When you get to your job, some people will assume you got it because of affirmative action or diversity initiatives. At any moment, you may be assumed to be intellectually below average and, at the same time, hyper-proficient in sports, dancing and sex.
Black life can often seem like a house of mirrors: A situation feels racist, but when you look again, you’re not really sure. You don’t have a way to X-ray white hearts, so now you’re calculating — are the store clerks ignoring you because they don’t expect a Black person to have enough money to buy anything, or are they genuinely busy? Did you get this table in the corner because the restaurant doesn’t want Black people to be prominent, or is this the only table that’s open? Did you not get the promotion because of racism, or is that younger, less-experienced white person actually better? Is that cop following you because …? All that analyzing can drive you mad.
The constant surrealism of Blackness — the way I fear the cops more than the criminals, the way I feel racism stalking me throughout my day like a horror-flick monster even if I’m not certain it’s there — all of it leads me to crave oases away from the chaos and uncertainty. We need safe spaces where we can recover.
Years ago, I was taught the value of Black safe spaces when I was writing a story for Rolling Stone about the Black Lives Matter movement. In my time with B.L.M. members, I learned that they very consciously prioritized self-care as a bulwark against the impact of racism on their spirit. They knew that if they didn’t regularly take time out to heal, they wouldn’t last in the long battle against white supremacy. To them, self-care could be any activity that soothes. For the group of B.L.M.ers I hung out with in Washington, D.C., it meant going to a nearby park, choosing a small space off to the side, putting up signs saying “Black-only space” and sitting there in peace among Black friends and family.
That sort of self-segregation can be so valuable. When we remove the aggravations of dealing with whiteness — the microaggressions, the silly questions, the lack of perspective, the otherization — only then we can truly relax. For me, “Atlanta” was a safe space like that. It was a Blackcentric world that embraced the complexity of our culture and generally ignored whiteness. There are no recurring white characters, and the main characters rarely interact with white people at all. Watching “Atlanta” made me feel at home. By embracing the surrealism of Black life, the show confirmed that we’re not crazy to think the world is crazy. Like no other show, “Atlanta” made me feel seen.
Wouldn’t most of these feelings and observations about black life also fit for male life in general? If blacks get black-only spaces, why can’t men reclaim men-only spaces?
The BBC: “Throw in working from home, the closure of pubs, declining engagement in religious activities or social clubs, not to mention smartphone addiction and so-called social media, and perhaps the statistics on men’s shrinking friendship circles aren’t that surprising after all.”
I remember in 2011, I had to move, and it was a trauma because I had to face the limitations of my choices and the poverty of my resources. I needed to find friends with whom I could stay for two weeks during the transition of moving out of one place and into another. My economic and social poverty was diminishing my life prior to my needing to move, but it was the move that made these problems unavoidable. So too with the Covid pandemic. Lurking loneliness pushed out of one’s conscious mind became impossible to ignore during the lockdowns.
Another important factor is, of course, that men are a bit useless. When it comes to making plans or staying in contact with friends, men are socially lazy. This appears to be especially true in middle age when something strange happens with men’s friendships. At this age, men don’t appear to be lonely, on the surface.
“Data including men and women has often found a U-shaped relationship, where teenagers and the oldest people in society are the loneliest,” says John Ratcliffe, a researcher at the Centre of Loneliness Studies at Sheffield Hallam University. “That said, the highest suicide rates are in single men in their 40s and 50s.”
Men show a stronger link between marital status and loneliness than women, Ratcliffe says. Which is to say, unmarried women are less lonely than unmarried men. “I would link this statistical trend to a greater ‘reliance’ on partners for intimacy in men, and a greater ideation of the family role. For men who don’t have a partner, loneliness can be particularly severe.”
America and the West in general have made many structural changes diminishing the status of men. They have created societies less hospitable to men. As a result, men have suffered. The BBC is blaming the victim. Can you imagine the BBC publishing an article calling black people “a bit useless”?
Mateship is an Australian cultural idiom that embodies equality, loyalty and friendship. Russel Ward, in The Australian Legend (1958), once saw the concept as central to the Australian people. Mateship derives from mate, meaning friend, commonly used in Australia as an amicable form of address.
Most simply, the term mateship describes “the bonds of loyalty and equality, and feelings of solidarity and fraternity that Australians, usually men, are typically alleged to exhibit.”
The historical origins of the term are explained in Nick Dyrenfurth’s Mateship : a very Australian history (2015). He cites the work of historian Russell Ward, who argued that “a convict-derived ethos of matey anti-authoritarianism embedded itself in the Australian psyche from the beginning.” The original obligations of mateship could be compared to ‘codes amongst thieves.’ It likely emerged out of a shared fear of authority. Men who betrayed their companions, or accepted authority over them, would be called ‘dogs’ for their betrayal.
According to Dyrenfurth, “Much of the rest of the world thinks of this practice as friendship, pure and simple. Yet in Australia, mateship evokes more than mere friendship…. Most Australian citizens … associate mateship with wartime service – in particular, the Anzac tradition forged on the shores of faraway Gallipoli during April 1915.”
Mateship is a concept that can be traced back to early colonial times. The harsh environment in which convicts and new settlers found themselves meant that men and women closely relied on each other for all sorts of help. In Australia, a ‘mate’ is more than just a friend and is a term that implies a sense of shared experience, mutual respect and unconditional assistance.