This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
A couple weeks ago, I began asking men—both in person and over social media—if they ever said “I love you” to their male friends. The first thing I noticed about their responses was an overwhelming eagerness to assure me that, yes, they said it. I got a lot of yup! all the time! and everyday!. The volume and enthusiasm of these comments made one thing very clear: men really wanted me to know that “love ya, bro” was something they enjoyed saying.
Initially I was impressed and encouraged by these responses because I interpreted them as signs of a cultural shift, one away from the idiotic “no homo” culture of the 2000s and towards a more enlightened realm in which masculinity can coexist with emotiveness and a general understanding that expressing love is a nice thing to do—regardless of your gender.
A friend of mine had a different, less optimistic take on things. He told me that scrolling through the comments on my initial post—“a question for men: do you ever tell your friends you love them?”—made him feel sick. He said these were just a bunch of bros trying to seem woke. He seemed suspicious that the subtext of their comments was, look at me, look at me, I’m not toxic!
But even if showcasing wokeness was in part what motivated these men to declare their “I love you” practices so readily, I can’t say I was off-put by their signalling. I don’t think our society has shifted to the extent where earnest bro-to-bro affection is seen as totally chill and good. There’s a difference between a flippant “I love you, man!” during a boozy softball game and a meaningful emotional exchange. And that difference is even more pronounced in older generations. My father, for example, says he does not tell his brothers or life-long friends he loves them unless under severe distress. “We regard ourselves as MANLY MEN,” he told me over text. “It was drilled into men of my generation, in school and at home, that we should not be ‘sissies.’ As such we prefer to show our love with companionship rather than vocalizing it.” He ended the text with a bunch of rainbow hearts and some sparkle emoji. Because he is my dad, and this is his preferred MANLY MAN sign-off, I guess?
But for all my harping on gender roles and to what extend we’ve succeeding in deconstructing them, these interviews taught me that a man’s willingness to openly express love is not solely dependent on his relationship to masculinity, nor is it always a reflection of the culture’s state of progressiveness. It’s individual, personal, dependent on things like age, life experience, family history, sexuality, culture, and plain old personal preference. Some men just want to be hugged in silence, and that’s their prerogative.
VICE: Do you have a lot of friends who you say “I love you” to?
Mark: Quite a few. Probably like five or six.
How long have you been saying it to them?
I think we first said it in high school, while drunk or whatever, but I don’t think we really meant it then. But the first time that I called my friends with the distinct idea that I would tell them I loved them was after that bus crash with the Humboldt Broncos. Two of my closest friends—I’d played junior hockey with them growing up—had lost a friend in the crash. They were both people who I’d spent a lot of time with, on busses like that, and who I’d formed friendships with in that world. After the crash I was thinking about death a lot. I thought about how horrible it would be if I didn’t tell these friends how much I cared about them, like if I somehow missed the chance to do so.
Do you think the crash affected the importance you place on saying “I love you”?
Yeah, I guess a little bit.
Did your relationship change or deepen after expressing love for your friends so intentionally?
Not drastically. I’m pretty sure it was something both of them knew. I feel like you just sort of know when a guy loves you. I think “I love you” is good to say but I don’t think it’s always necessary. Saying it to them that day didn’t feel like unlocking a new level in the friendship. It was just a feeling that I realized I didn’t want to keep on a shelf somewhere.
The hockey world is pretty hypermasculine, yet I get the sense that sports are a hotbed for “I love you, man.” How do these expressions of affection coexist with hyper masculine—or even homophobic—sports culture?
Yeah, so the strange thing about these groups of men, especially sports teams, is that people would call each other gay slurs all the time, like in the presence of expressed affection, but never with much intent. They seemed like dumb jokes at the time. This sounds terrible, but when people called me a homo, or when I called my teammates that, we weren’t even thinking about gay people or how it could be hurtful. But I think about those words now, and the way we used them, and I feel horrible because I can’t not think about gay people.
What were your experiences with emotional closeness like in the sports realm?
Hockey is particularly fast-paced and violent, and in Junior, the coaches can be pretty horrible in a lot of ways. As much as fans might stroke your ego, you’re just trying to survive. You’re trying not to get hurt, you’re trying not to get suddenly traded or cut or whatever. Those things constantly feel like a looming threat, and so you form these really close and intense friendships in a very short period of time. So, when I got traded from the team I was playing for, I got wasted and cried in my friends’ arms. He was crying, too.
How did that feel, crying in each others’ arms?
I was really drunk but it felt good. They were hurt to see me go, and so I felt like I meant something to that group of people. I just think when you’re playing that kind of sport and dealing with a coach who might have these bizarre tactics to fuck with you mentally, you have to cling to your friends to get through it.
Would you have told them at that time, sincerely, that you loved them? Or was it more of an understanding?
It was more of an understanding. Like I was saying before, love was something that I felt through certain acts—drunkenly crying in a friends’ arms, for example. That felt like a real act of love to me.
VICE: How long have you been telling your male friends you love them?
Ramón : High school sounds about right. I'm fortunate in that I'm still close with my best friends from growing up, most going back to middle school, and one going back to our births two weeks apart. I definitely started saying it more in college, which is when I came out as a gay man to family and friends. That was twenty years ago!
Was there anything in particular that prompted you to start saying "I love you" to friends?
I'm sure it began with generalized, “I love you guys,” likely said at the end of deep, emotionally-wrought conversations that we had in the middle of the night during campouts and sleepovers. Saying “I love you” to the group seemed to break the ice between us, and it became easier to say it to individuals. I do remember only saying it after deep, vulnerable conversations. It's because we were able to be so vulnerable with each other that our friendships have lasted for decades.
As a gay man, do you ever fear that male friends will think you're confessing romantic feelings if you tell them you love them? If so, has that fear or tentativeness decreased at all over the years?
I don't fear that with my straight male friends. At this point, I'm only friends with straight men who love and embrace who I am, which is a person who says, “I love you” to those he cares about. I often say, “I love you” to my gay male friends too, but that can be different because we may need to have a conversation about what that means for us. Is it as friends? Is it romantic? Are we sure?
Do you think that, as a culture, we're becoming less homophobic and more accepting of platonic love between men? Though, I guess it depends on where you live and what sects of society you're interacting with...
I think platonic love between men has always been accepted and is accepted between men, but toxic masculinity finds ways to corrupt it. It usually exploits the gaps between love and sex. Two boys can say I love you on an emotional level, and it can be beautiful and freeing for both of them. But as soon as a third person suggests that those boys want to have sex with each other, shame enters the picture. There are gendered ideas towards emotional vulnerability too. So love and vulnerability get mixed up with sex and shame, and toxic masculinity exploits that.
Have you ever had an experience where saying "I love you" has backfired? As in, they didn't reciprocate or were somehow off-put by you saying it?
Yes, but only with gay men. The clarifying conversation that gay men sometimes have after the first “I love you” can go awry if one person treats it as an unwanted expression of romantic feelings. It is a vulnerable time, and many people have trouble handling vulnerable feelings.
Is it more difficult to say “I love you” to a friend or to a romantic partner?
A romantic partner. That's because I have a deep fear of rejection. I have consciously refrained from saying “I love you” from a romantic partner because I worried that he wouldn't reciprocate those feelings. I must worry that “I love you” would force the issue, and I would rather exist in a limbo of possibility than to have a definite rejection. And, yes, I am currently single.
VICE: Do you ever tell your friends you love them?
Devin: More than I did when I was younger.
Why is that? Was there a particular catalyst?
I don't know if I would characterize it as one specific catalyst. I think a lot of different life-moments added up. One major one is I had a mother and father who never hesitated to articulate love to me, even when I was a little shit—especially then, actually. At some point, you realize as an adult how crucial that is to keep a relationship of any kind from falling apart.
I'd say another major reason is that you lose friends as time goes by. For the silliest reasons, too. A couple breaks up, and now a circle of friends doesn't meet as a whole anymore. Or life priorities change. Or the world re-aligns and now you're both at odd ends, politically. Or they pass away and you realize how much they mattered to you, even in the briefest of interactions. Along the way, people disappear from your life. And so saying “I love you” to who I can still greet face-to-face is very important to me. I'm not just doing it for them, I'm doing it for myself as well. To honour a connection or friendship so that when the time comes that it's gone, I have no thoughts or feelings left unsaid.
So do you say "I love you" to female friends as well?
If I'm honest, I say “I love you” to female friends a lot more frequently than male ones. But it oddly depends on whether we're alone or with people. If we have a coffee and say our goodbyes, I would toss in a “love you” as we hug and leave. If we're at a social get-together, I might find myself more hesitant to say that. Most likely, I'd be worried that someone would misconstrue it as something more than platonic. With my male friends who I've particularly shared a long history with, I have an easier time saying “I love you” in public or private, because I don't really care how it could be interpreted.
In both cases, I think the longer I know an individual, the more saying “I love you” is worth any social faux-pas or ramifications. I have a very good female friend whose wedding I recently attended. We very loudly exchanged “I love yous” in front of the whole reception, and I may have felt an initial discomfort—I mean, her new husband was a foot away and is also quite a big dude—but that soon felt absurd enough to abandon. After all, anyone who would read into an expression of friendship that authentic has issues that I can't do anything about.
VICE: How often do you say I love you to your friends?
Robert: When I’m with my best guy friends, especially one-on-one, I say it a lot. Usually at the end of a phone conversation or when saying goodbye after hanging out. Many of my best friends feel like family so I treat them very similarly and am open and honest with them.
When did you start saying “I love you” to your guy friends and why?
It was around the same time that I started university, which for me was at the same time I started to become confident not only in who I was but also confident in my sexuality. University was the first time in my life I was surrounded by like-minded people who loved music and wanted to pursue a life in music. Highschool wasn’t awful by any means for me personally, but music wasn’t a popular pursuit and I felt like people didn’t truly understand me as a person and kept me at arms length. The commonality I shared with people I met in my first year of university played a strong role in making me feel understood, appreciated, and safe. I could express my feelings honestly and tell people that I loved them.
Also, right after I started university I became sexually active and really came to grips with who I was and what I wanted. This washed away all the fear and anxiety of being emotionally open with others, or being worried about people interpreting [my “I love yous”] as sexual.
How do you know if a dude will be receptive to an “I love you”?
I think that many men are receptive and want people to express that they love them. Toxic masculinity has stunted the emotional growth of many men in North America and has prevented them from reaching a level of confidence—whether that be socially or sexually—that would allow them to be receptive and not awkward about a non-sexual “I love you.” I think that another guy reaching out and expressing an “I love you” can be a vital lifeline.
Do you ever feel vulnerable when saying it?
I think it’s a universal thing in any relationship, sexual or not, to feel a sense of vulnerability when expressing that you love someone. If I’m honest with myself, every time I’ve said “I love you” for the first time with any guy friend, it’s been in the heat of the moment, at a party, an event, in the middle of a sports game, and usually with the influence of some liquid courage. The honesty just pops out, and for myself it has never been weird or poorly received.
Do you tell female friends that you love them?
Less commonly. With my female friends there is always that possibility that it could be interpreted romantically, even if I don’t mean it that way. In my opinion this largely has to do with the fact that many of my friends are in their mid-late twenties. Traditionally this is primetime for people to be looking for a partner, settling down, making a family, and shifting into the next phase of their lives. This makes it extra difficult to say “I love you” to my female friends in a non-sexual way. It feels almost unfair to say it to them.
Have you noticed an increase in dudes saying “I love you” to one another?
Not particularly. I think I say it less than I did five years ago—mainly because I just don’t have as many close connections as I did in my university days. Nowadays working, changing jobs, moving to a new city, it all culminates in having fewer and shallower connections with others.
VICE: Do you ever tell your friends you love them?
Duncan: Generally after a lot of alcohol.
Is this because it induces heightened feelings of affection, or is it because you find saying "I love you," while sober, a bit uncomfortable?
I imagine it’s both. People generally are more uninhibited whilst intoxicated and somewhat more courageous. Feelings that you would normally hold back can come out while under the influence—sometimes in an exaggerated way as well.
Do you remember the first time you said “I love you” to a friend? How did it feel, and why was it the right thing to say at the time?
I believe the first time I said “I love you “ to a friend was in high school under the influence of alcohol, and I would say I felt a bit vulnerable, but the “I love you” was returned.
How important is it for you personally to hear “I love you” from friends? Is that outright declaration something you crave or need from friends?
Not at all.
Why is that?
I just don’t need people to tell me that. I generally know if they do love me.
If not verbally, what's your favourite way for a friend to express love to you?
A big hug.
*Some names have been changed
Follow Mica Lemiski on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE CA.