Silent doesn’t mean taciturn. A man might talk endlessly, constantly interrupting others. But all he does is tell jokes and talk about sports and politics. No one really knows what’s going on inside him.
Men’s silence is often socially enforced. The call to “man up” and the meme “I bathe in male tears” discourage men from showing their vulnerability. Perhaps that’s why Mad Men‘s Don Draper tries so hard to avoid dealing with his troubled childhood. An ad exec, Don is the archetype of strong and silent. Changing his name from Dick Whitman is symbolic of his inner disconnection, and Mad Men is a chronicle of the external consequences.
Don is a hard man to like. He’s a womanizer and alcoholic who leaves a trail of broken relationships. Raised an unloved orphan, his first sexual experience as a boy with an older woman would have been called statutory rape if it had happened to a girl at the hands of a man. How did this contribute to his future womanizing? Could it be that he’s not so much a chauvinist as he is a man struggling with the power women have over him?
Don doesn’t think to ask these questions, and even if he did he might be told to quit his whining. He’d be shoved back into silence.
In Invisible Men, Michael Addis describes three types of silence: Personal silence is a lack of self-awareness. Private silence is when you know how you feel but choose to keep it to yourself. And public silence is when you try to open up to others but are shot down, often in subtle ways.
Don’s silence is internal and lacking self-awareness. In the final season he takes off without saying a word to anyone. Winding up at a hippie retreat in California, he’s initially resistant to all the touchy-feely stuff but ends up calling his coworker Peggy on the verge of tears, struggling to reevaluate his life. Then in group therapy a man talks about his feelings of invisibility. Shocking everyone, Don hugs the man.
Most men must struggle with the double bind of being told that showing vulnerability is a weakness, and then being blamed for their silence. And there’s often a misguided assumption that men are silent on purpose, to punish their partners.
What does Don do with his new found self-awareness? The final episode ends with the famous 1971 “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial. Does the ad show that Don opens up to others about his need to be valued as a person? Or upon returning to the ad world, does Don bury his emotions again? That’s for you to decide.
Addis notes that people will communicate under the right circumstances, and men are no exception. He writes that masculinity can be viewed as a “transaction between a person and his environment” (his emphasis). That is, fulfilling social expectations to avoid rejection. As such, anger, aggression, posturing, arrogance, and silence can be masks for the deeper issue, such as fear, sadness, anxiety, rejection, and social isolation.
A recent study with men and video games found that men who bully women online often do so because of competition within the male hierarchy (though sexism is also an obvious factor too).
Specifically, women are more attracted to high-status men, and a man’s place in the male hierarchy is heavily influenced by his desirability to women. But low-status men who are outperformed by women fear that they become even less desirable to women, thus pushing these men further down the male hierarchy.
Loss of status is hard for men to deal with because men are already more likely to be socially isolated than women. However, the study doesn’t address why high-status males bully low-status males. Likely it’s enforcement of their higher status in the hierarchy. The same is true for high-status women and girls who bully those of lower status.
It’s true that raising emotionally aware boys could improve things. Teaching empathy is also critical. But empathy for men and boys is just as critical.
The larger issue is societal acceptance and encouragement of men opening up. This means a shift in male culture to something less hierarchical and toward offering support to other men rather than expecting men to resolve their issues independently and silently.