Recently a tweet from a sister jumped out at me from my timeline. She said something like, "I can't stand sensitive dudes. If I wanted to sit around and talk about my feelings, I would've called one of my girlfriends. Man up!"
The sentiment wasn't about me, but it made me think. After all, in just the past couple of weeks, a friend (who is gay) told me that two people had asked him if I was gay. Why? It appears that the common thread is that I am considered "sensitive"—or, I guess, more sensitive than one would expect a straight male to be.
Interestingly, I didn't have a knee-jerk, "Hell, no! I'm a women-lovin' straight-male" reaction. Instead, I was curious and concerned.
Why is a man so put down (or subject to assumptions about his sexuality) for being perceived as sensitive? I've found this to be particularly the case with black men—from within and outside our community. (Consider how the perception that he's "soft" or "emo" has single-handedly fueled years of punchlines about Drake.)
It's the other side of the well-known damaging stereotype that paints us as aggressive, onerous, threatening or just plain angry, or—as we were reminded of by the reaction to Richard Sherman's postgame interview—"thugs." While a lot of us need and are completely entitled to have a bit of an edge when we are out on the streets, or combating foolishness in broad social settings, I hate the idea of being boxed into being—or at least acting—hard all the time. It can be a bit much.
It seems that when "You're too sensitive"—a phrase I've heard far too often in my life—is said to a woman, it's an attempt to silence her emotions and not deal with issues. But when it's said to a man, it's meant to deride the guy for caring. He's being soft. Going all Ralph Tresvant. He's acting gay (usually from the perspective of someone who wrongly sees being gay as a bad thing) or acting like a little bitch.
But here's what I think: A sensitive man is someone with enough security and confidence in himself that being sensitive, compassionate or even vulnerable is not a threat.
I think it's worth clarifying that when I speak of being sensitive, I'm talking about actually taking an interest in others, being willing to listen more than talk, showing empathy and not having sex constantly running through one's head when interacting with a woman. I'm talking about the ability to show emotion.
Of course, there are limits. I'm not talking about people who fall to pieces. Consider what the word "sensitive" means:
Synonyms: Delicate, fine, keen, perceptive, quick, acute, sharp.
Antonyms: Insusceptible, invulnerable, unexposed, unsusceptible.
I'm sure there are times when people should be unsusceptible or invulnerable. However, in day-to-day interactions with people, acute, perceptive, quick, sharp and even delicate are useful and appealing personality traits.
I think the culprit is the way most of us have been conditioned, from childhood, to look at gender roles. Girls play with dolls and tea sets. Boys eat boogers and throw rocks. Girls wear pink and are allowed to cry, but boys are shamed for doing the same. If that line, even remotely, is crossed, boys are admonished to "stop acting like a girl." We've all come to realize that it's wrong to chastise a woman for being assertive, athletic or angry. But the way we accept the variety in men's personalities hasn't caught up.
As a result of this, women lose out, too. That tweet I mentioned above? The first thought that ran through my head when I read it is that this woman risked getting exactly what she asked for in a partner: a hard, insensitive man who she'd likely complain didn't tend to her needs. So many couples don't really know what's going on, emotionally, with their significant others because of strict adherence to the "man up!" principle.
Don't get me wrong here. There are plenty of times when I feel like there's just too much talking. However, when it comes to trying to get to the core of what's going on with my wife, my son, my family members or friends, I know that the best path for me is to listen and show sensitivity.
I'm sure some will read this and scream, "Man up!" And that's OK. I've been slowly moving to a place where I'm more confident and comfortable with just being who I am: a non-self-righteous, nonaggressive, straight black man. And maybe this means that when it comes to all this backward criticism, I'll be a little less "sensitive."
Matthew Lyons lives in Washington, D.C., and blogs at mynameisnotmatt.com. He is a husband, proud father, attorney and photographer who loves jazz, old hip-hop and deep house music. Follow him on Twitter.
Matthew lives in Washington, DC, and blogs at mynameisnotmatt.com. He is a husband, proud father, attorney, and photography, who loves jazz, old hip-hop, and deep house music. Follow him on Twitter @matthewdlyons