Dr. Christopher Reigeluth reviews recent research that finds boys can be highly emotionally expressive within the context of close male friendship.
From commonly uttered and popularized policing of masculinity (POM) phrases, such as “Big boys don’t cry” and “Suck it up,” boys receive messages from an early age that the expression of vulnerable emotions can be a tenuous undertaking. Over the past few decades, masculinity researchers have documented this gendered reality through the identification of dominant masculine norms, such as restrictive emotionality and emotional control (e.g., Conformity to Masculinity Norms Inventory (CMNI) and Male Role Norms Inventory-Adolescent-reivsed (MRNI-A-r). These norms can place significant pressure on boys and men to repress vulnerable emotions while embodying power and invincibility. The enforcement of norms that discount the importance of emotional expression places boys and men in a psychologically precarious position throughout the United States and around the world. Multiple researchers, such as James Gross, have found that the expression of the full range of emotions is essential to development and psychological well-being.
To examine what happens when dominant masculine norms are paired against basic emotional needs, we set out to explore emotional expression in urban adolescent males using an ecological and intersectional lens.
While boys and men from all backgrounds can experience pressure to conceal vulnerable emotions, boys in urban environments and from low SES backgrounds can be even more susceptible. The elevated pressure to conceal vulnerable emotions in urban environments comes from multiple sources including living in neighborhoods with higher levels of violence and threat. In consideration of these elevated pressures, we explored close male friendship as one potential interpersonal context wherein urban adolescent males might experience greater ability to make themselves vulnerable.
This study employed a dyadic research design that included close male friends in a disclosure task for the purpose of obtaining an observational measure of emotional expressivity. We recruited participants from a racially and socio-economically diverse public high school. Questionnaire data was used, in part, to ensure that both participants in the dyad endorsed a close friendship (i.e., higher than median scores). Participants received instructions to communicate in a manner similar to how they would normally talk to one another. For the disclosure task, the disclosing participant was asked to speak to his friend for ten minutes from a choice of three urban stressors that he had previously endorsed as “still bothersome.”
In the disclosure task, participants discussed a range of urban stressors including robbery, fights, gunfire and guns, gang violence, physical victimization, racism, and financial struggles. For coding the disclosures, thematic analysis was used to identify emotional expression and response patterns. See below for an excerpt from an exchange between a 15 and 16-year-old boy discussing an experience of feeling threatened.
Participant 1: When I was, like, little, I used to live in the (urban neighborhood), and I used to walk around weird buildings and abandoned building. One of the times, I almost got killed. I never want to go, like, inside an abandoned building because I think something bad is going to happen…
Participant 2: So you lived in a bad neighborhood over there?
Participant 1: Yeah, when I was small…I was scared, I was nervous. You know?
Participant 2: I would be scared. I would be mad scared. I probably would’ve turned around and ran…Crazy experiences, yo. When you are small, you experience a lot of things.” (Reigeluth et al., 2016, p. 238).
In this example, Participant 1 makes himself highly vulnerable in the presence of his supportive friend. His level of expressivity would likely differ in other contexts such as speaking to a teacher, other kids, his parents, etc.
There were two key findings from this study. First, the disclosing participants represented a range of expressivity types including:
- Vulnerable and Expressive (i.e., consistently expressive throughout the disclosure)
- Defensive and Diminishing Expressivity (i.e., level of expressivity diminished)
- Guarded and Ambivalent (i.e., appeared uncomfortable and hesitant throughout disclosure)
- Emotionally Disengaged (i.e., did not engage in disclosure).
The responding participants also represented a range of styles:
- Affirming and Supportive (i.e., provided empathy and consistent support)
- Critical and Unsupportive (i.e., discouraged and punished friend’s emotional disclosure)
- Playful and Aligning (i.e., responded flexibly and did not appear overtly dismissive nor supportive).
Within this broad cross-section of expressivity and response styles, many participants demonstrated the capacity to be highly expressive, supportive and interpersonally connected. This counterintuitive finding calls into question more traditional and stereotypical notions about masculinity and boys. Thus, while some participants displayed conformity to traditional masculine norms, such as restrictive emotionality and bravado, the majority of boys in the sample resisted traditional norms by displaying emotional vulnerability or providing empathic responses.
A second key finding is the importance of dyadic/observational methods of research. The majority of emotional expressivity research has utilized non-dyadic research designs or asked participants to disclose to an unknown other. To build on this important previous research, this study goes beyond viewing emotional expression as a stable and dispositional quality. In turn, we sought to understand emotional expression as an interpersonally dependent and context-specific process, within the confines of close male friendship and the urban environment.
In exploring emotional expression as an interpersonal process, we found a high level of concordance between expression and response types. For example, participants who made themselves consistently vulnerable always paired with an affirmative and supportive friend, whereas boys who diminished in their expressivity generally participated with a critical and unsupportive friend.
The benefits of using an intersectional framework extend to many areas of study within the psychology of men and masculinities. Through identifying specific contextual factors that influence the enactment of and resistance to dominant masculine norms, the field of boys and men’s psychology will continue to more deeply understand masculinities across and within different settings. While urban adolescent boys may be more highly exposed to environmental pressures, the participants in this study demonstrated that close male friendship can serve as an important ecological buffer to masculine norms of emotional restriction.
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Christopher S. Reigeluth is a Postdoctoral Psychology Fellow at the Yale University Child Study Center. He will be joining Pacific University in the School of Graduate Psychology as an Assistant Professor (’17). He completed his Ph.D. from Clark University (’16). Dr. Reigeluth’s research interests include exploring ways that boys from diverse backgrounds are psychologically impacted by gendered social learning. In particular, he studies (1) policing of masculinity in relation to various well-being outcomes, and (2) emotional expression as an interpersonal and context-specific process.
Alisha R. Pollastri is the Director of Research and Evaluation at Think:Kids. She completed her Ph.D. from Clark University (’10). Dr. Pollastri’s research has focused on the identification of neurobiological, social, and environmental factors that contribute to disruptive behaviors, particularly in children. At Think:Kids, Dr. Pollastri is responsible for evaluating how, and for whom, Collaborative Problem Solving works best to promote a clearer understanding of challenging kids and to improve child outcomes.
Esteban V. Cardemil is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University. He completed a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (’00). Dr. Cardemil’s research focuses on understanding and addressing the mental healthcare disparities in the United States that continue to disproportionately affect individuals from low-income and racial/ethnic minority backgrounds. Current research projects take place in the local community and investigate the effects of culture and gender in a variety of contexts, including middle-and high-school urban children, Latino families, and the help-seeking process.
Michael E. Addis is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University. He completed a Ph.D. from the University of Washington (’95). Dr. Addis is currently interested in theory and research related to men’s mental health. In his work, he focuses on links between the social learning and social construction of masculinity, and the way men experience, express, and respond to problems in their lives.