There is a pervasive gender stereotype that men don’t – or can’t – express their feelings. To what extent does the stereotype reflect reality, though?
Jonathan Charteris-Black and Clive Seale’s research claims to find as much evidence of variation in how men express their emotions as there is of men’s claimed deficiency in expressing them. They analysed 198 interviews asking men and women about their experiences of undergoing a life-threating illness. The sample was matched for age, social class, type of illness and the gender of the interviewer, and consisted of roughly the same number of words for men and women. The aim of the interviews was to provide publicly available information on a website about patients’ experiences of illness (http://www.healthtalkonline.org/).
The researchers found that, overall, men did talk about their feelings. They used a wide range of strategies to do so, perhaps because illness challenges a ‘masculine’ identity more than it challenges an equivalent ‘feminine’ identity. Some men indexed a conventional masculine identity through swearing, and in this way expressed their feelings directly. Swear words were about 8 times more frequent in the male interviews, expressing feelings such as frustration at physical pain (I was feeling pretty bloody at the time) or mental anguish (for example, a teenager with cancer said it was full of these bloody kids running around kicking footballs and I thought sod this I’m not … staying up here), or performing humour and irony. Women, by contrast, expressed their feelings directly through the use of negative adjectives such as frightened, awful or terrified.
Other men expressed their feelings indirectly rather than directly, for example by treating themselves as a serious problem to be examined from the outside, like fixing a leaking roof or a dripping tap. Words such as problem or difficult were far more frequent in the male interviews. The researchers argue that in this way men can conceal their intimate feelings and keep an emotional distance. They point out, though, that a masculine identity as a problem-solver becomes endangered if the problem cannot be fixed. The example in the box shows how one man who was unable to resolve his chronic pain communicated his frustration about what he presents as a major problem:
On the other hand some men were no less prepared than women to express their feelings about being faced with particularly serious or debilitating illnesses: words such as emotional, vulnerable or lonely were used just as often by men as by women. The researchers suggest that many men with illness undergo a degree of identity transformation as illness forces them to discover more about themselves and accept their vulnerability. Some of the metaphors that men used, though, suggested their difficulties in expressing their feelings: they talked of their anger ‘boiling up’ inside them, or frustration ‘boiling over’, using the concept of a liquid under pressure within a container and implying therefore that their feelings should really be kept in, and under control.
Charteris-Black and Seale conclude that our cultural beliefs about how men should behave have not prepared some men well for illness. As a result they undergo tensions between their beliefs about a ‘masculine’ gender role and an experience that requires them to perform according to what they might perceive as a ‘feminine’ role. Other men, though, are experimenting with an identity in which frustration is replaced by self-knowledge and emotional understanding. Ultimately, they point out, an acknowledgement of feelings of powerlessness in the face of illness is something that is human, rather than being specifically male or female.
Charteris-Black, Jonathan and Seale, Clive (2009) Men and emotion talk: Evidence from the experience of illness. Gender and Language 3: 81-113.
doi : 10.1558/genl.v3i1.81
This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire