Our SpeakEasy groups are only a little over a month old as I write this. We've had a couple in Stockton-on-Tees, another one coming up in Middlesbrough next week and we're proud to be starting one in Redcar next month. Who knows, with the help of some of our incredible supporters, we might have them cropping up in areas outside the north-east very soon too.
In the build up to starting them, I don't mind telling you that I was struggling. The pressure of trying to work out the intricacies of the groups; promoting them, finding venues, costing them and then worrying about what format they'll take was a little too much for me. Should they have a structure or should they be freeform? Will anyone turn up or will 100 people turn up? In the end, we didn't so much come up with any answers as we ran out of time to worry about them.
So now, they're out in the world and I think they're working great. Even in the few short weeks they've been going, I think I've learned a few things. A few things about me, a few things about the guys that turn up and a few things about men in general, and that's what I wanted to talk about.
I'm not here to talk about individuals or their lives, but some fascinating (at least I think so) lessons about us blokes that the groups have highlighted.
This isn't one of our 'famous' Top 10 list, mainly because I could only come up with 5, but the best thing is, as the groups expand, so too will my understanding and experiences and, if you're lucky, I might even share more with you. For now, let's stick to this!
Word of warning. I swear a little bit in this piece. Don't tell my Mum.
Men Talk. Get Over It.
I know there's a cliche that men don't talk about their problems, but in my experience, I don't think that's quite as true as you might think. They may not be as instantly forthcoming, but just give them a tiny 'nudge' (like, just asking them) and they'll talk about what's ailing them, bothering them, pissing them off or even what's helping them. This isn't some vacuous lip-service, but blokes can share at a deep emotional level. I shit you not!
I like to think that this comes from the way our groups are structured, i.e. not structured at all. I also think that part of it is the venues we use. There are no formal community centres with chairs in circle and everyone staring at their feet (not that there's anything wrong with them). We simply choose venues that are conducive to talking. And we do. We talk. We talk about anything and everything. There's no sense of one-upmanship, no sense of competition, just one of support and collaboration; of listening and understanding.
I can imagine that, for those who don't attend, the cliche about men and talking will live on, but if you ever need to see proof that it's not true, just come along to one of our groups.
I hope this doesn't come as a shock to you, but men are vulnerable. They might not always be vulnerable in the same way as women, they may show it in different ways, but they are. Why shouldn't they be? They're human after all, even those who have a beard that's a different colour than their hair. What's that about?
Societal and cultural pressures mean that men are still deemed to be the 'strong' one, the 'hunter / gatherer', the 'macho' one. The fact is even if their partner, family or friends aren't looking for that quality in them, expect it or even care about it, men still see it within themselves to be 'that guy'. How could they feel any other way with these pressure to ingrained within our society? There's a cultural burden to 'man up' that is often too forceful to simply throw off alone, but you know what, we're trying our best!
Speaking of the male burden to be 'that guy', let's talk about that a little more. Sadly, it's not going to change over night. Just like mental health stigma, homophobia, racism or just being a general dickhead, none of these states of mind are going to change just because we want them too. I mean we DO want them too (obviously) but they're deeply held beliefs by some ignorant people and they aren't going to change in the blink of an eye.
Think of it like an oil tanker turning in the ocean. You need a hell of a lot of time, space and a lot of patience. You might not even really see it moving, but it is, in small increments. It's just such a big behemoth of a thing. On second thoughts, it might be more akin to turning one around on dry land! It doesn't even really stop there (the metaphor I mean). You also need a captain at the helm who knows what they're doing.
I guess what I'm really saying is that coming together and sharing these pressures is happening, even if you can't see. It might not move mindsets overnight or in great numbers, but it's a hell of a place to start.
The No Blame Game
For all the problems the men come to our groups with, for all the problems they carry with them day to day, they don't blame anyone else for them. Whatever has lead them to our groups, all circumstances are totally individual to them, they face their fears and their flaws with quiet courage.
We all need 'something' in life; we all do. What I 'need' is no less or more important than what you need. It's just different and so it should be. These differences are what make life so fascinating, but there are also similarities.
For all the guys who might need the same thing, whether that's someone to hear what they have to say, a place to vent, an assuring nod or a welcoming shoulder to lean on, they can share it without it becoming a competition. The blame isn't left at anyone's door, it's absorbed into their need to move on and get better.
Admitting Their Needs
For groups that, for the most part, are filled with complete strangers who are all blokes, there are some beautiful things at play. It inspires me every time I run a group.
It's often said that women need acceptance and / or approval more than men, but our groups show that isn't the case and more than that, we are happy to admit it.
At our SpeakEasy groups, you'll see a bunch of men that are vulnerable in their own ways, but you know what, there's an inner strength, a confidence and a courageous spirit to every single one of them that walks in the door and sits down. They wouldn't be there without it. Life has dealt them some tough breaks for sure, but they got through it and admit that too.
The 'strong, silent type' is bullshit and we prove it every month.