What you need to know:
- I often read and hear men say they are not comfortable expressing emotions.
- In their cultures, men are expected to remain stoic regardless of what else is going on around them.
“Can I have at least two men stand up and share feelings they have experienced over the past 24 hours?” the room went momentarily silent.
The question was asked by a man holding a booming mic. He was the moderator for a men’s breakfast.
The silence gave me time to take in the luxury of the exquisite white chairs and the gigantic TV screen in front of me displaying the event’s programme. But I also worried that no man would speak and the session would be declared ‘dead on arrival’.
It felt akin to going to a group of women and saying: “Can I have two ladies stand up and tell us their age?” Luckily, one hand went up. And then a second.
I often read and hear men say they are not comfortable expressing emotions. In their cultures, men are expected to remain stoic regardless of what else is going on around them. That is true of most men I have interacted with, including my father.
It is as if women have the option of breaking down if things get bad, but men don’t have that option. And if they do, then there should be something deeply embarrassing about that.
The desire to understand men a little better is the reason why when I recently got an invite to a Men’s Breakfast at the Aspire Centre in Nairobi’s cool neighbourhood called Westlands, I knew even before checking my calendar that I would go. The keynote speaker took up the stage.
A respected and astute captain of industry, this man has been at the helm of some of the most profitable corporations in Africa, has controlled budgets worth billions, and has served as an advisor to presidents.
In his public appearances, he never shows signs of cracking. He also came from a background where ‘men do not show emotions’ and ‘men make things happen. They pay no attention to feelings.’
He spoke about his growth in emotional mastery and the gift that has come out of his emotional courage. He shared vulnerably about how negative mainstream and social media in the past made him become in tune with his feelings.
He talked about the emotional toll of being grilled by Parliament at least 15 times. And wound up talking about the burden of public performance, which most men deal with.
The more he spoke, the more the men who had been prim and proper in their ties and mostly black suits started showing interest in emotions and emotional intelligence. Slowly, the room where people had been exchanging awkward glances started to thaw.
It stopped to look as if the men present were uncomfortable about ‘meeting someone they know’ in ‘such a place.’ It was, therefore, a big relief when the men engaged authentically during the Q&A session.
SIDENOTE: A few women were invited to the event. The unwritten code was that women support the men with our presence. But let them drive the conversation.
As the moderator pointed out, it had taken a woman to bring men together (the event was organised by a woman). It had not been an easy task getting the men together in a room to talk about emotions, as she testified.
It took heavy doses of self-control for me not to speak. I am that student whose hands are always up in class.
This experience reminded me just how different men’s and women’s programming can be. Beyond the broad gendered variations, subtle differences exist from one person to another based on socialisation, exposure, and belief systems. I grew up in a girls-only home; I have two older sisters but no brothers.
This means I did not grow up internalising differences between girls and boys because there was no opposite gender ‘to benchmark with’ at home, except for my dad, who, I believe, is gender-blind. This upbringing served me well.
I grew up with unbridled career ambition since I didn’t have gender limitations. However, I don’t always understand nuanced differences in how men and women do things. And the older I get, the more this understanding proves critical.
Well, life is a continuous growth process. Attending events such as the men’s breakfast for me marks significant steps towards resolving this blind spot.
The writer is the impact editor, NMG; [email protected]