Why do men struggle with friendship? After he got engaged, comedian Max Dickins realised he had nobody to be his best man. As a recovering billy no mates, he explores the ‘male friendship recession’, and the people and projects doing something about it
“Can I interest you in a sack of dolls in various states of undress?”
This is Dan Flanagan, founder of Dad La Soul, a social enterprise that offers playdates for lonely dads. It’s an autumnal Saturday morning in the quietly hip coastal town of Worthing, West Sussex. I’m watching Flanagan set up a load of soft play in a venue that, on weekdays, is a centre for older adults with learning diffculties. “It’s the calm before the storm,” he warns. He’s not wrong: ten minutes later, 25 or so dads – chaperoned by at least as many young children – pour in.
For decades, studies have consistently shown that men have fewer friends – and especially fewer close friends – than women. “As men get older, we often become trapped in tiny social circles,” says Flanagan. Sadly, it’s a situation I know well. A couple of years ago, I planned on proposing to my girlfriend only to realise I had no one to call on as my best man. Ever since, I’ve tried to get to the bottom of men’s friendship problem. And explore solutions, like this one.
Stewart is here with his five-year-old son. He manages a craft brewery in Brighton, and with his handlebar moustache and ironic Hawaiian shirt, looks exactly like the sort of bloke who might. We lean against a wall, overlooking the carnage. On the other side of the room, three kids wrap their daddies in loo roll until they become mummies.
“What I get here is openness and honesty,” he tells me. “We talk about stuff that isn’t only work or football. I’ve had better conversations with guys I’ve just met here than friends I’ve known for years.”
Psychologists generally argue that men’s friendship struggles are, at their core, vulnerability struggles. “I don’t think society has bred us to have these sorts of deeper conversations,” agrees Flanagan. “Our role models did not do that. It’s very, very alien. It’s about changing that narrative.”
Yet, it’s hard to argue that men are more uptight than they were in the 70s or 80s. But since then, men’s friendship problem has, if anything, got worse. In 2021, the Survey Center on American Life identified a male ‘friendship recession’: since 1990, the number of men reporting that they have no close friends jumped from 3 to 15 per cent. In the same research, the number of men saying they had at least six close friends halved from 55 to 27 per cent. Does this suggest something else is going on?
Dr Robin Dunbar thinks there is. He’s emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford and regarded as the godfather of friendship research. He argues that men’s social style is fundamentally different to women’s, and that the reasons for this are innate.
“Women have very personalised friendships: who you are is more important than what you are. Whereas for men, it’s the reverse,” he tells me when we chat on Zoom. The male social world is much more superficial, casual and club-like. “So, what qualifies you to be a friend is that you belong to the club, however that’s defined,” he says. “It could be the guys who play five-a-side, the guys who go for a beer together every Friday night, the guys who go canoeing. It is almost always activity- based in some form.”
Lose the club – lose the shared activity – and you often lose the friendships. And as men enter parenthood and middle age and time grows scarcer, they are more likely to withdraw from these things.
But the question is: do men really prefer to hang out in this club-like way? Or does our socialising look like this because it’s generally the only thing on offer? Dunbar argues it’s the former, not least because this ‘male style’ can be seen cross-culturally, seems to emerge very early, and is also visible in our nearest primate cousins.
One form of friendship doesn’t necessarily rule out the other, however, and it turns out that’s Flanagan’s strategy, both at these playdates and his fortnightly mid-week dad-only gatherings “We don’t all sit around in a circle, because this isn’t therapy. There’s stuff you can do, that you are interested in,” he explains. “There’s a pool table. We put some tunes on…” (Dad La Soul is a play on De La Soul, the 90s hip hop trio – there are decks at every meeting.)
“We’re a Trojan Horse. Come and have a beer, have a game, tell some terrible jokes, and then you quietly realise that talking goes on too.”
“Dan’s made it look cool. You think: ‘That’s something I want to go to,”’ says Neil, a neuro-disability nurse here with his two children. “It’s also under the radar, you know? ‘I’m not lonely, I’m taking my kids out…”’
Female minds might boggle at these sorts of sleights of hand but talk to those on the front line of the battle against male loneliness and they’ll tell you that men won’t just ‘get together’: they need a pretence. They also need a leg-up. “Two thirds of the men who step through the door are referred by their wives and partners,” Flanagan tells me. “They think, ‘I can see he’s got no friends, but he’s not going to say anything.”’
And nor is he likely to do anything. Men’s social laziness is by now well established in the social scientific literature: as men get older, they delegate the maintenance and making of friendships to their better half until all their friends are, well, her friends.
This mid-life bonfire of the bros can’t be laid solely at the door of useless blokes, though. Wider structural factors are also likely at play. For example, we are much more mobile than we used to be. Both Stewart (Brighton) and Neil (London) moved from affluent cities in search of more affordable housing, leaving their social circle behind. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg tells me we have also witnessed a collapse in the ‘social infrastructure’ that used to support our friendships.
Women are also at the mercy of these changes, of course. But they may affect men more, because they compound our comparative lack of social initiative and skill – not to mention men’s penchant for club-like socialising.
“Community centre-type environments – the church, the working men’s club, the Freemasons – they’ve always been here in some form or another, in all cultures, for time immemorial,” as Dunbar puts it. “These kinds of communal activities have been quietly dying. We are cutting away the very environments that we need.”
This was my biggest learning as a recovering ‘billy no mates’: in a world increasingly unfriendly to friendship, it’s all on us now. Friendship in the 21st century? Well, it takes work.
Dad La Soul is coming to an end for another month. Flanagan comes over to check if I’m alright. “Loud, isn’t it?” he says. A small girl dressed as a ballerina marches past blowing into a recorder as if she’s trying to summon a demon. Nearby, a boy of similar age shuffles up to another and enquires as to whether he might like to join him at the Lego pit. He thinks about it, for around half a second, and they peel off. These kids seem to have this friend thing pretty sussed.
Flanagan surveys his kingdom. “This is just the start,” he says. “We’ve had guys who have met here who have joined a gospel choir together, who go sea swimming. A gang went off to watch Terminator the other day…”
And maybe that’s all any of us want? Someone to play with.
Real talk: how to have better conversations
1. Go there
Without vulnerability, we put a ceiling on our relationships. Be the one that goes first: don’t just talk about ‘stuff’, tell them what’s going on inside.
2. Beware bantz
“Men learn that vulnerability often equals rejection or punishment,” friendship expert Dr Marisa Franco told me. “If you want vulnerability, then safety has to come first.” Beware your banter doesn’t get in the way.
3. Sit with it
If a friend shares a personal problem with you, don’t jump to provide solutions. Instead, demonstrate empathy by listening patiently, asking questions, and sharing your own experiences of the issue.
4. Active affection
Men rarely communicate to their friends that they so much as like them! Don’t wait till you’re seven beers in: tell them now. It often pulls down walls.
5. Be direct
Sometimes we know something’s up with our mates, but we brush past it – or let them do the same.
6. Ask direct questions
Call out what you notice. If your friend seems sad, be kind – but tell them.
Billy No Mates: How I Realised Men Have a Friendship Problem by Max Dickins is out now, published by Canongate
Main image: Peter Flude
Help us break the bad news bias
Positive News is helping more people than ever to get a balanced and uplifting view of the world. While doom and gloom dominates other news outlets, our solutions journalism exists to support your wellbeing and empower you to make a difference towards a better future. And as Positive News’ audience and impact grows, we’re showing the rest of the media that good news matters.
But our reporting has a cost and, as an independent, not-for-profit media organisation, we rely on the financial backing of our readers. If you value what we do and can afford to, please consider making a one-off or regular contribution as a Positive News supporter. From as little as £1 per month, you’ll be directly funding the production and sharing of our stories – helping them to benefit many more people.
Join our community today, and together, we’ll change the news for good.