There are more people on Earth than ever before, so it’s natural that there are more lonely people on Earth than ever before.
It’s really an impossible statement to make, whether people are more or less lonely than in the past. Still, there’s a lot of talk about it because people like impossible statements. The world will end in 2012. I am the second coming of Christ. I am the Messiah. I’m just gonna have a few chips and then I’m gonna put the bag back in the pantry. Impossible statements like these are fun to make, and really give life a shake.
I’d like to give life a shake and make a few impossible statements about loneliness and gender. Cutting to the core, I’m going to tell you gendered behavior makes it so men have more of one type of friend and one type of loneliness and women have more of the other. I’m going to make an earnest request that all people should have both types of friends and minimize both types of loneliness.
Before all that, I’ve picked some cherries for you that demonstrate that there’s a narrative about loneliness that I’m building off of. Over nine million British adults are always or often lonely. 35 percent of (presumably British) men feel lonely at least once a week. The British have appointed a minister for loneliness to square the whole thing out, which seems terribly British of them.
Cigna, one of the feared giants of the American health insurance landscape, tell us Americans can also feel lonely. Nearly 50 percent of the Americans they surveyed sometimes or always feel lonely. We Americans are lonely too, but we aren’t going to appoint a minister to deal with it. We’re going to settle it like individuals and sabotage one another until we have to respond to each other with one to several thousand radical acts of violence.
There are, if you are one of those odd people that comprehends faces better than numbers, plenty of articles that take snapshots of the lonely person, giving them the voyeuristic respect adults give zoo animals. The focus of these articles often turn to friends, in particular, the adult male friendship. Many adult men struggle to find real, deep, meaningful friendships that will last a long time or can be picked up after long droughts.
This is a surprise to me because this is a problem I don’t have.
It may seem like I’m bragging – that’s because I am. I understand bragging isn’t a pretty thing to do, but I’ll celebrate my victories so life doesn’t feel like it’s all defeats. Plus, I’m not bragging just to brag, I’m bragging to talk about how important deep friendships are and how we build them.
In fact, last week I was sustained by deep friendships. Creatively, I was stymied all week. I spent the week fearing writing much more than actually writing. When you’re working part-time and taking on less money with the deliberate goal to write, this feels like a solid failure – because it is a solid failure. During the week, three different long-lasting friendships from different points of life pushed me out of feeling like a waste of space.
A college friend got me working on a podcast, and editing it actively gave me a creative, productive break from main projects. A childhood friend and I shared jokes and exchanged music and art we found. I got a keyboard to monkey around on and he gave me helpful advice on how to get started with a new instrument. I got the basis for this whole damn article by spending five hours talking with a friend I’ve had since ninth grade.
Without friends, I don’t know if I would’ve done a damn thing with the week and I can’t imagine the emotional lows I would’ve reached. It wasn’t like this week was an outlier or exception, either. I’ve had depressive episodes. I came into the stressful world of bisexuality rough and rollicked. I tumbled through queerness while working emotionally draining jobs and living off of small paychecks. I’ve gotten the shit beat out of me by adulthood. Plenty of people can live through this, but if I didn’t have a cast of close friends, I don’t think I would’ve.
So, celebrating the success that’s kept me kicking, I’ve been digging into this “friendship” business. To truly dig at the ideas, you’ve gotta start with the words.
What is lonely? What is friend?
Lonely is a lot of things to a lot of people, but it isn’t being alone. Being alone could even be “alone time,” which is a good thing in this culture where the word “introvert” is used as a cudgel to beat things to death.
Merriam-webster calls loneliness, “being without company” or “cut off from others.” That is generally accurate but not deeply accurate.
Lonely is, deeply speaking, feeling a want for call-and-response but feeling the call part won’t work. Maybe the call will echo into a void and disappear. Maybe there isn’t enough mental strength to make a call in the first place. Maybe there is so much mental movement that any call made would feel strange, desperate, totally alien to the flesh-things that cohabitate your space and all responses would be negative. Lonely is reaching out and not touching anything. It’s fucking terrifying. It’s a thing you can feel lightly or heavily, with a part of yourself or with your whole self.
Friend is a general thing. For most people, it is a wide, messy word that hides an even wider, messier spectrum. There are many different kinds of friends and there’s been a lot of ink spilled on defining the kinds and labeling the parts that put them at their point on the friend spectrum. Even the ends of the friend spectrum vary. For some, one end is “close” and the other is “distant.” For others, the ends are “deep” and “shallow” or “everyday” and “infrequent” or “supportive” and “challenging.”
Friend is so deep a thing that you can drown in it. So, here is what’s at the surface of it for me:
Inside the immense pool of friend, I see two clear distinctions in buds and besties. You may have fished more distinctions out of the pool of friend – I have too. I don’t doubt they’re there and as real as the ones I’ve found. Right now, it’s best to keep things honed to a binary, since we Americans have great trouble thinking outside of one.
Anyways, buds are people I meet for activities, clubs, careers, and interests. Buds are bound together through actions of some sort – games, sports, faith, yelling. Like with friends, buds can be good or best or close or whatever else. Buds can be run into or invited in. Buds can light up your room and your night and can mean a lot. Buds can become besties or stay buds, as besties can become buds or stay besties. A friend could be both at once. All things in life are fluid until proven otherwise.
Besties, on the other hand, come together over feelings. Besties bond over talks that stir up from wells of emotion. Besties hash out things like identity, sexuality, romance, politics, religion, and much more. Besties can have boundaries and don’t need to rip their souls out and share them at every interaction, but what’s important is that they can usually do this with each other on the drop of a dime. If one bestie is really struggling, they can expect to call out to another and get a response – maybe not immediately, but somewhat soon.
Now we’ve circled back to lonely. See, buds are great but they won’t stop lonely. Buds can’t be guaranteed to respond to a call because the call is an action and they might not feel like playing a game, or going running, or hopping in bed with you (there are fuck buddies, but a fuck bestie is just a significant other). Besties can respond to that call. Friends that you might not have talked to in months could still qualify as besties, and friends you see every week could be buds. I have both.
There are besties I have brought deep shit to after months, maybe even a year of silence, and they take it in stride. There have been other times I’ve done that and not gotten a response, letting me know that person may not be a bestie anymore. That’s not a bad thing, and not even on them as much as it could be on me, it just is what it is. There are buds I’ve bonded past action with and become besties with, too.
“But bro,” a loud, perpetually flexing voice in my head says, “why’d you have to use a girly mouth sound like bestie? Why not a strong, masculine term like Punch Brethren?” Because everything is gendered, including loneliness.
Men have buds. Women have besties.
I was raised by a wild pack of women, and also my dad. I learned a lot from both parties.
In education and development, there’s a simple idea called modeling. Your actions set a model for children, which the child then builds a version of for themselves. I model how to say a word, the child builds the word along that model. My sisters model how to build a friendship, I build a friendship along that model.
I grew up with both the masculine and feminine models – the bud and bestie – put right in front of me. Without thinking, I’ve modeled both and it’s been why my social life has stayed solid. Growing up, I felt no shame calling up a bestie or getting called by one just to talk. This idea of talking just to talk gets coded feminine for whatever reason. It ‘s an idea at the core of being a bestie because, through course of long conversation, deep feelings will be broached.
In my house, I regularly saw these kinds of long conversations. My sisters had them over the phone with friends and in-person with each other, and my mom had them with her own friends and coworkers. I am lucky that I consider all of my sisters besties. I’m both lucky and unlucky that they weren’t the type to let me disengage totally from the feminine as a young boy would like to. I was unlucky in that they did terrible things to my hair. I was lucky in that I learned valuable lessons about friendship. The end result was that I came away not feeling so uncomfortable with feelings that I couldn’t express them to friends and get those besties.
Here is where I don’t undersell my dad and masculinity. There is toxicity to masculinity, but one thing it gets right is community through hobby. I saw my dad move through several communities centered around sports, religion, yelling, and more. This was hugely important to me. I have valued memories of watching the Pacers and of chanting at the Gohonzon in a community center full of old Japanese people. Both of these things carried into my adult life and formed up parts of my identity. I’m not a Buddhist, but it’s still the basis of a lot of my morality; I’m still a Pacers fan, and it’s also the basis of a lot of my morality. My dad had a lot of buds, which helped me learn how to make them myself and find new corners of the world to squirrel into.
Let me try and dodge some hot water here and say that these gendered dynamics aren’t set in stone. They can reverse and change, and they do. They also do not mean that men couldn’t do something emotionally available like social work and women couldn’t do something like lead communities. Men and women do both things, yet, search your culture and ask yourself, which gender gets stereotyped as community leaders and which gender gets stereotyped as community supporters?
The gentleman lonely and the lady lonely
The fact that men and women have these gendered differences in how friendships form also means that they have differences in how they feel lonely. Men tend to have more buds and women tend to have more besties. The terrible truth is, you need both. It takes a village to raise an adult… or something like that.
I’ve given besties a lot of props, so now I have to tear them down. Besties are great, and while I do think they’re better for deep loneliness than buds, they aren’t always what a person needs. There will be times where you might not realize you’re lonely, or where a bestie can’t be called on, or where a distracting, fun activity is better for loneliness than a deep talk. This is where buds come in.
That board game night, that video game session, that dungeons and dragons group are all things where socialization happens but, pleasantly, it isn’t about anybody. It’s about the activity and so it’s about everybody. This can be super socially cohesive. Anthropologists study games at length and discuss them plenty because of that social weight they carry. Think about every human you know. Getting even five of those fuckers to come into a room and not think primarily about themselves for hours at a time is an actual accomplishment. Actions and activities do that. Buds do that.
There is so much more to be said for buds beyond that. Buds surprise you, showing sudden depth or skill or virtue through a game or activity. Buds don’t need you to be emotionally available like besties. Buds let you express things totally unattached to emotions, feelings, and maybe even the core of yourself, letting you blossom into all sorts of wild nonsense. These kinds of circles can, despite often being deliberately less deep, be fertile ground for growing an entirely new part of an identity.
So, the lady lonely often comes from lacking this. I’ve known it to happen to friends and family and I’ve seen it in discourse. If you’ve been on Tumblr, there are a lot of posts defending what are essentially bud building zones for women. Posts step up to defend fandoms, fanart, K pop, Harry Potter, and traditionally feminine things like makeup or biddy-hoards at bars (yes, I know bro-hoards exist and are just as obnoxious). This is women pushing for spaces where they can have buds, and that’s important because a lot of traditional bud-zones are masculine. Sports, comics, video games, and so on are all coded masculine and women have written at length about their troubles earning respect in these spaces.
It’s really gonna put a damper on your quest for a bud if you’re constantly fighting for equality and respect while inside the bud-zone. Your buds might involuntarily become besties through that because difficult conversations are forced, and you’re actually a little bit disappointed because a bud would’ve been nice. Being bisexual, I partially understand the feeling.
Women often have those important besties that keep them afloat but they don’t as often have simple communities to access where they can get some hassle-free buds. Studies won’t indicate women as lonely as often as they will men, but I do think a lady lonely exists. I’ve seen women in my life have to look and work harder for hobbies and to get buds. My sisters would often wonder why sometimes my friends and I could just sit and play the same or different video games near each other, rarely talking, not having been taught the bud dynamic.
I’ve also seen women I know lose friends more quickly because the bestie dynamic can be more fragile and prone to explosion than the bud dynamic. If someone stops coming to trivia, you may miss them but you probably won’t blow up on them. If someone violates your trust by revealing a deep thing you told them, or by taking that deep anxiety you revealed and crapping all over it, or by putting too much emotional stress on you, then there may be an explosion.
There are so many jokes of two women being furious at each other and petty for years and two men reconciling immediately. In my eyes, some of this comes from that dynamic where women are raised expecting besties and men are raised expecting buds. It’s not that big a deal if a bud is frustrating, but it can be a really big deal if a bestie is. I think there’s an expectation for women to be vulnerable and emotionally available all the time, and that’s bad for breeding buds, and out and out bad in general.
Men have the exact reverse expectation, expected to be invulnerable and emotionally controlled most of the time – bad for breeding besties and out and out bad in general.
The gentleman lonely may be less wide, but it is deeper. I don’t think men are as fenced in by their loneliness, being able to reach out and to find social clubs and communities and not worrying much about drama or problems in them. Yet, the problem for a lot of men is this is a shallow pool. How would your pool partner, your dungeon master, or your basketball buddies feel at you opening up about money problems? Or about depression? Or about how so many dreams feature the same the gnarled, bone-white figure approaching you and how each dream, it gets closer and closer, and how you are at once so afraid and so excited for it to reach you; for it to undo what it has come to undo and leave you in peace; for even if it undoes you by your every fiber, there must be peace in the undoing; there must be a peace that you don’t have now and will never have while you wait for it to reach you.
The deeper stuff might be off-limits, or it might not be, but it’s not comfortable enough to everyone involved to feel worth expressing. It’s more fun to just drink and play pool. Growing up, I was taught that emotions, anxieties, and the Pale Walker Named Dread were all things you talked about. A lot of men don’t have that same experience and can have trouble creating relationships that go to that deeper level.
We talk about the gentleman lonely more because we see it as more dangerous. To lay out as flat as possible, the lonely, nervous man is the potential shooter – in America, anyways. The world over, they’re still potential perpetrators of other crimes or violence. I don’t think people view the lonely woman in the same light. Instead, people see her as a potential victim, probably of the potential crime the lonely man would do. They also might see her as undesirable, or in some way deficient.
A lot of this, on either side, isn’t real. Lonely people are much more depressed and self-destructive than dangerous or undeserving. It’s all too easy to write off lonely people as deserving of it and unfit to socialize. Men feel this pressure intensely since they’re identified as dangers, not in danger. The gentleman lonely can dig at the roots of the self, tearing at identity and confidence, putting lonely men in a downward spiral where anxiety ramps up, confidence collapses, and socializing becomes harder.
I’ve fallen into this spiral before. Whenever I socialized I felt like shit, like I wasn’t totally me, and like it was a wonder why anyone hung out with me at all. I could openly tell friends about this struggle, and hearing that they had my back, that I was still who I thought I was, helped me pull out of the spiral. It’s not so hard to confide in a bestie, but it is tough to walk up to a bud and say, “I had the dream again. This time the Pale Walker Named Dread was so close that I could see the lines tracing its face like rivers cutting gorges into valleys.” My buds can draw me away from these thoughts for a bit, or remind me of my social value, but only my besties really bring me out of them.
A lot of men need a significant other to be the bestie, which is part of why men freak out so damn much about the idea of not having one. It’s part of why incels exist. When someone says and does things as embarrassing as incels do, it’s out of no small desperation and a pretty small sense of self. I’d put money down on the fact that plenty of incels have a few buddies, but besties are rarer. The language, the training, the modeling, all of it isn’t there for plenty of men and so the deeper things remain hidden. The gentleman lonely can be a steady force saddled right on the shoulders wearing downward, pushing and pushing towards the dirt. For men, loneliness is a deep well that they can fall into. They can pull themselves out with distractions but they could fall back into the well the very next day.
We’ve looked at lady lonely, looked at gentleman lonely, so what about non-binary lonely? I’m fairly genderqueer. I’ve been diagnosed by a licensed psychiatrist with gender dysphoria. I’ve known and spoken with plenty of transgender and genderqueer people. I’ve messed with my pronouns in the right environments. I rarely talk about this because I’m a teacher and I want to appear as an upstanding young man, and because I feel reluctant to claim a lot of identities when it seems like no one is having any fun with any of them. Gender is not the cross I’ll die on, if I can help it, but I’d be remiss not to hit on the non-binary element when it’s important.
I don’t think the uterus or balls push someone as hard in the direction of bud or bestie as upbringing, societal expectations, and pure personality do. If you’re a fanatic for wider communities and for hobbies and doing things in groups, then I bet you’ll get a lot of buds. If you’re all about long, deep conversations for the sake of it, then likely you’ll get besties. In my experience of the non-binary world, it varies based on personality first, gender identity second.
Gay or lesbian people will have more buds or besties based on preference too. I think being LGBT+ pushes a person towards besties since besties better help you survive against the heavy emotional damage that can come from queerness. That said, in adulthood, there is so much community in the LGBT+ world that a person can reorient towards buds.
I favor the middle, walking the surprisingly large line of androgyny in between, and lean lightly towards getting besties. Given the weird, often depressing interplay between creativity and queerness, I need besties more. If I didn’t have so much to hash out, I think I’d be much closer to the middle because they scratch different itches.
When you get a bunch of comfortable buds around, beautifully absurd things happen. Grown folk pretend to be dwarves, elves, gnomes, and orcs. People scream so loud for the tall man to dunk the dark orange ball through the bright orange rim. Friends get hot around the ears over plastic pieces on wooden boards, betraying and allying with one another. The world is at its weirdest and most mystifying when you’ve got a bunch of upright, linguistic simians in a room spitting threats and alliances at each other over a set of dice or a bowl of chips.
Yet, once the dust settles around an event, it’s lost to me. The conversations about life with my best friends stay with me for weeks or me, pulling me up as dark thoughts drag me down. To me, it becomes a balance. I need both for different things and if I were allowed to, I’d seek a complete equilibrium. I think most people, given the tools, stripped away of the coding, stripped away of the shame, would seek something close to an equilibrium.
Yes, there are some people who naturally make buds, not besties, and vice-versa. I’ve met both types. Still, there are more I’ve met that are much closer to the middle, wanting to have both much more than they show.
Right now, we’re hashing out the toxicity inside gender identities that have rapidly become too absurd to ignore. Gendered behaviors are at once so far removed from the environments that (maybe) provoked them and so intensely reinforced by marketing messages wanting to sell shades that are pinker than pink and bluer than blue, that they’re past the boiling point and mostly steam by now. Because of that, I see a lot more tendencies to tear down than to celebrate – as much in myself as in others. It can be healthy to tear down, but if you’re not careful, you lose some things you may need later.
If there’s something I’d celebrate from my masculinity, it’s bringing people together to do something with the day. Fuck it, let’s let Monday’s problems sit inside Monday and let’s spend Sunday screaming at people we don’t know, who also can’t hear us. Let’s bond, let’s surprise each other, let’s build on each other.
If there’s something I’d celebrate from my femininity, it’s being there for someone on their worst day, talking over the hardest parts of the world with them. Hell yeah, let’s talk about how wild a ride life is and maybe cry a bit while we’re at it. Let’s see what feelings look like on the faces of other people, let’s feel what they do to our own faces, let’s build each other up.
If there’s something I’d argue, it’s that these don’t need to be separated. You don’t have to pick one and you never had to. In fact, it’s probably better you didn’t. Redefining gender shouldn’t be loss alone, it should also be gain. Men aren’t from Mars, women aren’t from Venus, we’re all earthlings similarly awful at cohabitation. We might as well start learning from each other and, who knows? Maybe we’ll get better at living with each other too.
~Austin R Ryan