Greg is ghosting me. Was it something I said? Had I moved too fast? Did he not share my interests? We match on a dating-style app aimed at friendship. His profile says he likes sport, music and exhibitions. Generic, but I’ll take it. He lives just outside of London and he’s looking for people to share similar interests. Not a huge amount to go on, but I figure there’s enough there to get past a discussion around the kind of weekends we’ve both had. His photos look a bit staged, and possibly even a bit flirty, but I can overlook that.
But the conversation never really gets going. I thought getting conversations going on dating apps was hard, but it turns out apps for friendship are no different. Then, there’s the fact that I’m an adult man and for some reason, making new friends with other guys is sometimes a weird experience.
Let me explain. Although I have a strong and extensive friendship network, the gradual loss of tight-knit social circles to careers, marriage, babies and pastures new, means it’s not always easy to find someone who’s free to shoot the breeze on a weeknight. And I’m not alone. Research from mental health charity Movember suggests that men find it harder to make friends than women, with as many as one in three men saying they have no close friends whatsoever. The situation has been described as a “friendship recession” that is taking an enormous toll on our health, with loneliness said to be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
While I’m downloading the app and filling out my details, it’s hard not to feel slightly embarrassed and self-conscious about the act of seeking out friendship on an app. Perhaps the problem is that there’s virtually no way to distinguish between the Bumble dating app and its friendship-based equivalent. You still have to swipe right and match, and all the same prompts, digitised speed dating concepts and settings are there. The exacting nature of it all feels like an unsettling way to go about friendship, and that’s before you even start browsing profiles. The first thing I notice is that most of the men on the app are either gay or have recently moved to London. Several profiles contain virtually no details, relying on a topless bathroom selfie, flexed muscles, a pout on the beach, or occasionally, an aggressive stare to lure you in. "Are these real people or just a load of bots posing as potential friends?" I wonder.
Just like dating, I realise that finding matches and starting chats can be frustrating and ick-inducing. I don’t manage to amass a huge number of matches, but most chats time out, while other ones ghost mid-conversation, leaving me wondering what exactly I should say to someone I’m trying to befriend rather than seduce. Because what you’re looking for is platonic, your entire vocabulary of seduction goes out of the window. “How is your day going? I’m so glad it’s Friday! Glad it’s not actually raining for once”. My chat turns so dry that I’m not even talking about what the weather *is*, just what it *isn’t*. Needless to say, he didn’t bite, and after over a month of use, none of my conversations have led to a real-life meeting.
Another guy, Ben, seems to have a happy complexion, albeit with a profile full of black and white selfies. While it’s not red flag territory, I’m always a little bit suspicious of the solo selfie profiles. Again, I overlook that, because he says he likes photography, nature, reading and various sports. Enough to generate conversation? No, we stall at the “have you got any weekend plans” and “I’m hoping the sun comes out, so I can go for a bike ride”. God, my chat is awful. Another guy I see on the app has a Steve Jobs-esque black sweater thing going on, while others list ambitions like “solving world hunger”. In these instances, the chat never even gets off the ground.
In my experience, the times I have made meaningful friendships with other men have been the result of shared hobbies or repeated interactions within broad social groups. And even then, there didn’t really seem to be any breakthrough moment to signal that friendship was on the horizon.
According to psychotherapist Georgina Sturmer, part of the difficulty for men may be that friendships require vulnerability, and “men are less encouraged to talk about their feelings and often lack a vocabulary around their emotions”. That might be why, she says, men tend to establish friendships through the language of a shared activity, while women are more able to find friendship through time spent talking and getting to know one another. “This isn’t based on any particular theoretical or research model,” she says. “But think about the stereotypes in a playground - boys playing sports, while girls wander around chatting. Then think about the stereotype of adult women going on a spa day together and adult men playing in a sports team.”
Courtney Boyer, a relationship and sex therapist, agrees. “Women are conditioned to seek out friendships; it’s acceptable and expected, but men aren’t conditioned in that way. However, it doesn’t mean that those needs aren’t present in men.” Many of her male clients, she says, are incredibly successful on paper, having achieved their career, house and family aspirations, but remain lonely and unhappy.
So can apps help men break the friendship deadlock? Boyer believes the awkwardness around a friendship app may dissipate over time. Most importantly though, she says men need to be encouraged to open up. “I’ve encouraged my male clients to join or start a book club. They are such a great way to buffer really deep and meaningful conversations and open up. It’s safer to not open up, but that means you’re not a fully contributing member of society. The world needs you, even though you may not think it does”.
Breaking with the prevailing messages and stereotypes that young boys receive from an early age is also important. “Some of these messages are specific to men,” says Sturmer. “Men are told that ‘boys don’t cry’, which instils a sense that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. “The paradox here is that vulnerability is how we build connections with other people,” she adds.
Bumble claims that the app is responding to a growing trend of people customising their profiles to seek more platonic connections. “With the global loneliness epidemic growing,” it says, “and Bumble research finding that more than 1 in 3 people have met their friends online, we felt a standalone app was the next step.” The company claims that up to 15% of monthly active members have been using the friendship platform since it was launched in 2016.
Although it is early days for the standalone app, which launched in July of this year, the company hopes it will help to make friendship more accessible. According to Bumble research, a quarter of men cannot identify a physical or virtual place where they tend to meet people and make friends, while nearly a third (31%) are less likely to meet new people through their existing friends than their women counterparts (39%).
While Bumble’s efforts represent a positive step forward, I can’t help but think it will take much more than an app for men to get better at making friends. Understanding the mental challenges men face, investing in mental health services, and creating a new form of masculinity that welcomes and encourages vulnerability will involve huge cultural change. Are we ready to take on that challenge? On current evidence, I’m not so sure.
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