Sports. Food. Work. But not feelings. Most guys tend to avoid the tough topics they confront in real life when hanging out. The Swedish non-profit Make Equal saw this as fueling confusion, toxic attitudes, and even the sexual harassment and lopsided gender relations called out by the #MeToo movement.
In 2016, Make Equal created #Guytalk. The concept—dinners for “starting conversations about what it’s like to be a man”— are now being held in cities throughout northern Europe, attracting men from many fields.
Anyone can hold one. Make Equal offers a slew of tip sheets and conversation starters, as well as a step-by-step guide (pdf) to structure what could be an awkward evening, for men who aren’t used to opening up. Sex, porn, love, ego, avoidance, fragility, violence, and friendship top the list of topics. Make Equal also published a book, Everything We Do Not Talk About, filled guidelines, as well as personal reflections from men, ranging from a Thai kickboxing champion to a politician to a comedian.
Swedish entrepreneur Patric Palm, CEO of the software company Favro says a #Guytalk dinner earlier this year changed his perspective. His fellow guests included prominent Swedish politicians, startup founders, and a captain of a Swedish sports team. In the past, he said, the fear of being labeled a “softie” prevented fruitful discussion on these fundamental issues.
“We don’t dare to bring these things up,” he said. “Emotionally, it was a bit awkward. I never have conversations like this…But I thought, ‘Wow this is healthy.’”
Although not yet popular internationally, Make Equal’s #GuyTalk guidelines work well anywhere in the world—at a home or a restaurant. The key is guiding the conversation effectively to whatever topics you decide to take on, and making sure everyone feels welcome to participate.
It’s worth diving into the whole package of advice, but here are a few tips to get started:
Keep the conversation to yourself
The first rule is discretion. Few topics are quite as charged today as gender relations, and trying to say the “right” thing about a flashpoint topic like sexual violence or #MeToo is a sure way to say nothing. (Watch Saturday Night Live’s take this January on the verbal contortions at a dinner party where there are no such ground rules.) To help men feel comfortable opening up, Make Equal suggests no comments leave the room—just personal insights gleaned from the conversation.
Break the ice
While awkward at first, a few warm up statements can break the ice, as can questions that everyone at the table has the chance to answer. Make Equal suggests that men explore themes of love, friendship, ego, avoidance, fragility, and sex, and offers kits filled with prompts for chats on these topics. On love (pdf), for example, participants are asked if they have “felt inadequate in a relationship.” On friendship, the kit asks, “Does the way you talk change when there’s only men present?” “What makes you feel lonely?”
Listen without judging
“Don’t judge, and never question somebody else’s experiences,” Make Equal says. Different lived experiences inevitably lead people to different perspectives. A “smug style” has permeated liberal discourse in recent decades, as even the left-leaning publication Vox notes, which can sometimes make people quicker to condemn than to try to understand. In conversation, hold your fire and try to assume good intentions.
Let people finish
These are basic rules we teach our children: “Don’t interrupt.” “Listen to each other.” But we don’t always obey them ourselves. While listening is always good advice, men might benefit from this advice a bit more. One 1975 study found in conversations between men and women, men were responsible for 96% of all interruptions—and thing haven’t gotten much better in the decades since, to the point where “manterrupting” is now a widely recognized phenomenon.
To avoid men talking over each other, Make Equal suggests assigning a moderator, who starts by going around to each participant, and then opens the floor to comments. When something is unclear, the moderator or someone else should be bold to enough speak up and ensure wires aren’t getting crossed on fraught topics.
As a personal rule to make sure you’re being overly dominant in the conversation, Make Equal suggests letting at least least two other people speak before you pipe up again.
Say I, not us
Speak for yourself—not for your whole gender. Saying “I” instead of “men/us men” helps avoid generalization and miscommunication.
Build in time to reflect back
Every good dinner party has an end. Wrap things up deliberately. Asking “Does anyone want to correct, add to or comment on any topic that was discussed during the conversation?” ensures people can reflect on earlier statements, or express views that might have changed during the dinner. “Are there any changes that you want to make in your life, as a result of the conversation?” is another recommendation.