If you want to strike up a conversation about health with another male, chances are it’s going to be a short one. For most guys, talking about health is a nonstarter.
According to research, men are more likely to talk to their male friends about sports (obviously), current events and even their jobs before they’d speak about health-related issues.
One recent survey conducted by the Cleveland Clinic found that only 7 percent of males are willing to discuss health in casual conversation with their male friends. Furthermore, 53 percent of men said that health is just not something they talk about — period.
Men Are Afraid of Disturbing the Gender "Norms"
Among those men who don’t talk about health with other men, 38 percent avoid the topic because they believe it is not their friend’s business, and 22 percent of men don’t discuss private topics, such as health or relationships, with anyone. Some experts believe this reticence has to do with societal messaging about what the male body is really supposed to be used for.
“The major message is that the [male] body is a performative machine for work, sports or sex — not something that is potentially vulnerable that needs to be looked after and could use help from other men,” explains Michael Addis, professor in the department of psychology at Clark University, director of the Research Group on Men’s Well-Being and expert on helping men with masculinity and depression.
“There are norms for each gender,” says Addis. “For men, those norms have to do with toughness, independence, self-reliance and emotional control. Showing that one has physical or emotional vulnerabilities brings up fear and shame.”
Men Are Afraid of Being Bullied
Homophobia also has a part in limiting what men will talk about with their male friends. “A guy could tell his golf buddies that he recently had a prostate biopsy, and then his friends would immediately heap insults on him — how much he must have loved the procedure … [or] did he get the doctor’s phone number,” explains Addis. “This kind of teasing starts in third grade with, ‘Don’t cry on the playground.’ By the time he’s 50, he has gotten the message.”
This inability to discuss health is not only bad for the men themselves, but also bad for society. “Men’s hidden vulnerability is the flip side of men’s public dominance,” Addis says. “But when men deny pain and vulnerability, it creeps out in anger, substance abuse, absenteeism and marital problems. People around them suffer.”
Men Will Protect Their "Image" Even in the Face of Death
And even more serious issues can also be linked to this attempt to preserve a macho image. “Men are four times more likely than women to die by suicide,” says Addis. “Men die five to seven years sooner than women and have poorer preventive health care. They see the doctor less, drink more, smoke more and are less likely to wear a seat belt.”
Men Will Talk to Women About Health, However
The good news is that the survey reports that men do at least talk to their partners about health matters. Forty-eight percent of American males tend to turn to their spouse or significant other first to discuss a health issue.
“Men are encouraged to confide in women more than in other men about their problems in life, whether physical or emotional,” Addis says. “There are things that men are with each other — capable, masculine. But as for physical health problems and fears, their history tells them that confiding in males is too risky, that they’ll be shamed or criticized.”
How Can Men Start to Open Up About Their Health Issues?
Dr. Wendy M. O’Connor, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Brentwood, California, suggests appealing to their positions as fathers to encourage better communication around health. “Men who are role models with good health care — who let their families know that going to the doctor is a normal activity — pass that on to their sons,” says O’Connor. “If they aren’t scared about health issues and they can talk about them, the conversation becomes normalized.”
Even before kids come into the picture, men can be encouraged to be proud that they take their health care seriously. “Women find it sexy when men take really good care of themselves,“ says O’Connor. “It’s one of the traits they want in partners.”
Even in the early stages of dating, ask men whether they go to the doctor and about their family health history. “If men understand that this is important to the women they’re interested in, they are more likely to open up about it themselves.”