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I’d never thought of myself as the marrying kind. Yet here I am in London’s Hatton Garden, shopping for an engagement ring for my girlfriend, Naomi.
I’ve taken the grown-up decision to surprise her with a proposal, but, like most of the men I can see around me, I’m clueless about the right thing to buy.
Luckily my two former flatmates, Philippa and Hope, are on hand for moral support and expert female advice. ‘Gold or silver?’ ‘Shape of stone?’ ‘Emerald or diamond?’
I had no idea there would be this many questions.
When Max Dickens proposed to his girlfriend, he realised he couldn’t think of anyone to be his best man. He soon found himself asking the question: Why do so many men have so few friends?
Eighteen shops later we give up and retreat to the pub. ‘So come on,’ says Philippa over a glass of wine. ‘Tell us, then. Who are you thinking of for the best man?’
And for what feels like the hundredth time that day, I have no idea what to say.
That night, home alone in the South London flat I share with Naomi, I make a list of all the guys I might possibly consider as my best man.
I look down the roll call of candidates. I work with half of them, and we have little contact outside of that. The others I haven’t spoken to, in some cases, for years. This can’t be right, I think. I must have forgotten somebody really obvious.
I check my text messages. The last time I sent a message or received one from a friend was two months ago. WhatsApp is similarly barren.
Panicking, I Google the phrase ‘getting married, no best man’. There are 994 million results.
‘I have what people would consider a successful life,’ writes one desperate guy. ‘I have a job, a house and a beautiful partner. We’re getting married after six years together, but I got thinking about a best man.
‘All of a sudden it hit me that I have no real close friends. I just got smacked in the face by loneliness.’
Further Googling tells me this bleak scenario is not unusual. One 2018 survey asking men how many of their friends they could discuss a serious topic such as money, work or health worries with, reveals that just under half could think of no one at all.
I realise that while I might have a few mates — work mates, pub mates — I don’t have any friends. How the hell has this happened to me? I wonder. And what can I do about it? I make it my mission to find out.
Max Dickins: ‘There are lots of unspoken rules in male friendship. A starter for ten: I’ve been with female friends to restaurants, ice-cream parlours, parks — you name it. But if I meet a male friend, it’s always at the pub. A curry house, maybe’
‘Why don’t you just text someone?’
Naomi is sitting on the edge of our bed. There’s hair removal cream smothered all over her top lip and down the sides of her mouth, giving her the appearance of a Mexican drug lord.
‘I will,’ I moan.
‘You always say that and then you don’t.’
‘I can’t just text someone. I’ve got nothing to say …’
‘Say: “Do you want to have a drink?” It’s simple.’
‘Sounds like I’m asking them out on a date.’
‘All right, how about: “It would be good to catch up.”’
‘I can’t …’
‘It’s just not what guys do!’
There are lots of unspoken rules in male friendship. A starter for ten: I’ve been with female friends to restaurants, ice-cream parlours, parks — you name it. But if I meet a male friend, it’s always at the pub. A curry house, maybe.
Although we must not meet explicitly ‘for a meal’. We meet ‘for a few beers’ and just happen to go and ‘get food’. No ‘quick coffees’ allowed. And blokes definitely don’t meet ‘for a lovely slice of cake’.
Another rule: don’t be the one who does the reaching out. Let them do the organising, the inviting, the chasing. If you do it, well, that’s a bit needy, isn’t it?
But Naomi was right: if I keep on behaving in the same way, I’ll keep on getting the same result.
I message all the guys on my ‘best man’ shortlist: ‘Hello mate. Would be great to have a pint in the next couple of weeks if you’re free?’
I put my phone down and immediately feel nervous. What if they’ve moved on? Or what if they do what I normally do? They’ll open the message, I’ll see the blue ticks to show they’ve read it … and then they’ll ignore me.
Within minutes, Seb replies. ‘So great to hear from you! How’s things?’
I’m surprised at how excited I am to get his message.
He continues: ‘Listen I’d love to meet up, but I’ve got some news . . .’
I wait for his next missive. Twenty seconds becomes a minute, becomes quarter of an hour. Oh my God, he’s terminally ill! Seconds later a photo of a two-week-old baby arrives.
Seb is one of my oldest friends. Yet the grim truth is that I’d had no idea he and his wife were even thinking of having a baby.
Despite my mountainous ineptitude at friendship, it seems my old pals are pleased I’ve got back in touch. Soon I have a series of meet-ups planned. For the first time in years, my social diary is filling up.
It’s about time I took responsibility for my social life. If men were honest, we often leave that stuff to our wives and girlfriends.
Social scientists have a term for this phenomenon: ‘kin keeper’. Coined in the mid-1980s, ‘kin keeping’ is the act of maintaining and strengthening familial ties. And guess what? Every study shows women shoulder this responsibility a lot more than men.
Without kin keepers, family and friendship groups would fall apart. And, based on the conversations I’ve been having with men these past few months, if it weren’t for their romantic partners, many men wouldn’t have any friends.
When I started going out with Naomi, I gained a new social group. The guys I see most often now are the partners of her girlfriends.
I have not done anything to build that group. I just show up.
Inside the group, I notice the other guys do the same, outsourcing the work involved to the women: keeping on top of when everyone last met, brainstorming ideas for what we might do, the clerical effort of getting everyone organised.
When you take this sort of male free-riding and remove the women from the equation, you can see why men’s friendships can be so dysfunctional.
A married female friend of mine explained it like this: ‘I have a theory that men can be great at being friends if they happen to fall in together. So if they live nearby, or they go for drinks after work, or have a regular weekly pub quiz or something, it’s sort of automatic.
‘But, in general, many men aren’t used to making plans with friends and thinking ahead: trips, meet-ups, the logistics of nursing a friendship.’
Ed has always been one of my favourite people, and we arrange to meet at a sports bar near London Bridge. Germany are playing Spain in the football.
On the way to meet him I decide I’m going to tell him how much he means to me. This is something men rarely do: that would break another rule.
Indeed, the only time I’ve ever told a male friend that I so much as like them is after seven pints or so. Allowing me to say the following day: ‘No idea what I said last night, mate! I was smashed!’
When I arrive, the bar is rammed. Ed and I talk of little else other than what’s happening on the big screen. It takes me a couple of beers to find my nerve.
ME: So, mate. I’m thinking I’m going to get engaged to Naomi.
ED: What the f*** are you doing? Are you stupid?
ME: Err …
ED: Germany are subbing Timo Werner. Spain are playing a high line: he’s their main threat in behind.
ME: Oh. Yeah.
ED: What did you say?
ME: I’m thinking of proposing to Naomi.
ED: Mate, that’s great! Congratulations!
We clink glasses.
ME: So … I was thinking about the wedding …
ED: I don’t expect to be invited, by the way. I know how hard these things are to organise.
ME: Well. No, actually. I just wanted to say that I’ve been reflecting on the people in my life who are important to me. And you are one of my best mates and I just wanted to say that I’m …
ED: It’s fine, mate —
ME: … committed to our friendship and …
ED: You don’t have to …
ME: I like you. Is all …
There’s a beat of silence and we both look up at the screen again.
ED: Thanks, mate. I … like you, too.
ME: No worries. Pint?
ED: Amstel, cheers.
Standing at the bar, the discomfort of our conversation sits like a fist in the pit of my stomach. But when I return with the drinks there is a look in Ed’s eyes that seems warmer. The connection between us isn’t just hypothetical any more, it has been confessed.
Why, I wonder, is it so difficult for men to be honest with each other about their feelings?
I email Dr Ryan McKelley, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin and a therapist who specialises in working with men. When we speak, he explains men struggle with this stuff because we’ve been raised to associate emotional talk with being effeminate.
You’re probably familiar with the argument here: men believe they should be unyielding to suffering and always in control, where ‘in control’ is a synonym for ‘unemotional’ — unless that emotion is anger, the one feeling men are culturally encouraged to express.
This emotional constipation isn’t great for men’s mental health, and it isn’t great for men’s friendships either. Especially if they want to have close friendships, or, you know, a best man.
Why? Because intimacy requires vulnerability. It requires that I disclose my inner world to you and for you to do the same. But this ‘deep’ talk with ‘the boys’ remains taboo, and when I reflect on my own friendships, I realise that we’ve developed tactics to avoid it:
He got married 12 months later and standing next to him at the top of the aisle was not his right-hand man but his right- and left-hand women
Talking about literally anything else, whether that be sport, work, the past, politics or the pressing intellectual quandaries of the day. Such as ‘Have you ever urinated into a hotel kettle?’
Taking the p***
Banter: that peculiar male way of relating that, at its best, can be joyous. But, at its worst, can be used as a sort-of gag-truncheon. Or a moat laid down by men to stop their mates from getting too close.
A guy, staring into his pint of Kronenbourg, says: ‘She was the love of my life. What am I going to do?’ His mate replies: ‘Let’s go paintballing!’
‘We socialise boys away from attachment,’ explains McKelley. ‘We teach them to separate from others, emotionally and physically. And it starts almost from birth.’
But do men really learn these sorts of silly rules in their friendships or are they programmed into us? Are they not — whisper it — part of our male biology?
I speak to the famous evolutionary anthropologist Dr Robin Dunbar, who tells me that the male social style is much more innate than is trendy to believe these days.
While women’s friendships tend to happen ‘face-to-face’ and be based around talk, men’s friendships tend to happen ‘side-by-side’ and be based around sharing activities.
In other words, if you want to have better male friendships, you should be focusing on what you might do together. So, I arrange a ‘boys’ holiday’; I organise fortnightly five-a-side games; and I set up my own club.
Pub Club: once a month I book out a space in a boozer and invite all my mates to join me. For one drink, or 12, or whatever their schedule allows. A few days before, I nudge them to invite a friend of their own. Any pal they’ve recently parried off with those immortal words of male friendship: ‘We must have a pint some time.’
My biggest learning in this whole process has been that if you want to maintain your friendships as an adult you’ve got to be intentional about it.
When you’re young, friendships are easy. You’ve got tons of time. Endless energy. Then you get older. All the big scary stuff arrives: marriage, kids, careers. Now you can’t rely on spontaneity, on a minor miracle of syncing diaries. Friendship needs structure. And it’s on us to build it.
After all my research, it turns out that philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right when he said: ‘The only way to have a friend is to be one.’ Not so very complicated, really.
A year after I first went wandering wide-eyed around Hatton Garden, I finally propose to Naomi. In an elaborate ruse involving an escape room in Bristol. Luckily, she says ‘yes’.
Well, actually, she says: ‘What took you so long?’ And then: ‘Did you really choose this ring all by yourself?’
We get married 12 months later and standing next to me at the top of the aisle is not my right-hand man but my right- and left-hand women.
Was it a cop-out that in the end I asked Philippa and Hope to be my best women?
The truth is, I ended up picking the same people I probably would have chosen before all of this began. The important thing, however, was that now I had a choice. I may not have found a best man, but I was a better man, and in the end that is what my wonderful wife deserves.
Extracted from Billy No-Mates: How I Realised Men Have A Friendship Problem, by Max Dickins, to be published by Canongate on July 7 at £16.99. © 2022 Max Dickins. To order a copy go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. P&P is free on orders over £20.