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The Crisis of Connection


By Patrick Wu (UC Irvine)

In her 2011 book Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, Dr. Niobe Way, professor of applied psychology at New York University, explores the maturation of friendships in adolescent boys. Compiled from interviews over the course of 20 years with black, Latino, white, and Asian American urban high school students, the interviewees reveal their deepest feelings towards their friends, and through their responses expose how social stereotypes have had a detrimental impact on these relationships.  

Dr. Way’s book brings to light the existence of toxic gender stereotypes of boys as being stoic, independent, autonomous, physically tough, emotionless cave-men; to have an emotional connection with another male would be seen as “gay” or “girly.” Call it what you want, but society expects a certain code of conduct from us men: a “boy code” (from psychologist William Pollock), a “guy code” (from sociologist Michael Kimmel), or a “bro code” (from fictional pick-up-artist Barney Stinson). These codes demand that we shut down emotionally, act aggressive and invulnerable in life. Dr. Way explains that these antiquated stereotypes have truly dangerous implications in our development from boys to men.

Men actually do have a desire for emotional connections traditionally entrusted to the female gender. The interviewees in Dr. Way’s book expressed that they intensely care about their friends, and describe their best friends as “someone you share secrets with, someone you can rely on to understand and support you, someone you do not have to conceal your vulnerability from.”  Neuroscientists have found girls are actually not naturally more empathic than boys; they’re just allowed to express it more. The gender gap then is a product of the socialization a child receives as they mature.  

As boys grow into men, the desire for emotional connection is suppressed: they have to “man up.”  Many of the interviewees were contacted 2-3 years later and revealed their cherished friendships had ended, for various superficial reasons like long-distance or changed schools. They expressed feeling lonely and said they needed and missed their friends, but had to quickly qualify these feelings with “no homo.”  By suppressing these intimate relationships as adolescents grow up, they can become depressed, distrustful, lose friendships, and feel isolated and alone, right at the moment in development that the rates of suicide among boys in the United States jumps up to become four times the rate of girls.  

Dr. Way believes this loss of intimate same-sex relationships is the result of a "crisis of connection": a cultural tendency to identify universal human traits such as empathy and the desire for intimacy as "feminine." Human needs and desires for connection and intimacy are given a gender (feminine) and their expression among males will be interpreted as gender-deviant or “gay.”  As a result, men end up giving up relationships with men for relationships with women. However, these relationships with women can only partially fill the void created from the loss of their male best friends.

While Dr. Way’s book does draw some important conclusions, there may be some over-reaching assumptions made. Chloe Darracott-Cankovic from Times Higher Education argues that Way seems to want to make a correlation between the emphasis a society places on male-to-male relationships and their overall progressiveness of gender and sexual politics. Yet those societies she cites, like the Middle East and Latin America, are not necessarily known for their gender equality leadership. Another point that Dr. Way does not address adequately is that there are benefits to the social stereotypes given to men: a sense of power and privilege that men derive from their supposed position of dominance over women. It may be this sense of dominance that causes the young teenage boys in Dr. Way’s study to ultimately embrace the “bro code,” for better or worse.  

So how does this book relate to our lives in Sigma Nu, whether we are just starting candidate education or attending our last alumni networking event? Above all else, Dr. Way’s book reveals the importance of building meaningful relationships, and fortunately for us this is a main focus of Sigma Nu. Men want relationships with other men in whom secrets are shared, trust is total, and they have confidence that their friend will not betray them or laugh at them when they are feeling vulnerable. As brothers of Sigma Nu, we provide that much needed support for each other and trust that the same support will be there for us, for life. Such fraternity is hard to find in today’s society.

Ironically, joining Sigma Nu Fraternity actually helped me avoid being the typical “frat guy” in college.  As college students and alumni, we see the stereotypes around us every day.  But I argue that the men of Sigma Nu are not the stereotypical “tools” people expect us to be on campus. Our fraternity has more depth and complexity than to be concerned only with the college social scene. Our organization is one aimed at developing the next generation of gentlemen instilled with the cardinal virtues of Love, Truth, and Honor; a generation of men who value true friendship and deeper relationships with our brothers.

Overall, Dr. Niobe Way’s book brings to light some important points and offers a solution to the “crisis of connection” us men face as we transition into adulthood. The solution lies in “exposing inaccuracies of our gender stereotypes and fostering critical relationships and fundamental human skills.”  As leaders of our respective academic communities, there is great opportunity for us as a fraternity to usher in the next generation of mature gentlemen – men who know how to have and to relish our mutually supportive, intimate, and deeply empathic relationships. We must at one moment be the super-human, and at others be a shoulder to cry on. We must exemplify that the needs, desires and feelings of men and women are at their core far more similar than they are different.  

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