I can’t help but feel resentment when I’m made the confidant of yet another random man for the night. It happens all too easily. First, I’m drawn in with a background of his family and home life. As I pour myself a drink and ask the perfunctory questions about his childhood, he draws up a chair and begins his well-worn speech.
I perch awkwardly at the end of a table, wondering what his name is. I tune in to hear “… and my brother has had a substance abuse problem ever since”. “That’s awful,” I murmur noncommittally, taking a sip of a drink which has already been tainted by melting ice cubes. He continues, telling me that he hasn’t spoken to anyone about this before, that there’s just something about me he trusts. What a privilege. I wonder, will he afford me the same?
It wasn’t always this way. As a teenager, stolen moments at parties made me feel privy to the inner workings of my friends’ brains. The nights were a blur of substance fuelled rants that revealed an immature yet entirely human desire to be understood completely. Our stream of words filled the awkward spaces of our teenage years, hoping to make sense of that strange loneliness that comes with growth.
These conversations usually ended with a sincere “I just love you so much, you’re one of my closest friends”. I would cringe the next day thinking back on the intense outpouring we’d shared, unable to bring myself to focus on any of the details. The truth that we’d stumbled upon was discarded with the rise of the sun.
“As I got older, I noticed a marked shift in the dynamic of sharer and listener. Men who were almost strangers would offload their burdens onto me, mostly unprovoked and unannounced.”
The natural gossip in me felt the power that comes with being entrusted with a secret. I have a natural fascination when it comes to the stories of other people. I’m interested in what drives and motivates them, what lies behind their actions and how they think. Whispered intimacies became a key to understanding these intricacies, and how they shape our world.
As I got older, I noticed a marked shift in the dynamic of sharer and listener. Men who were almost strangers would offload their burdens onto me, mostly unprovoked and unannounced. It wasn’t until I spent a whole evening comforting a man – who I knew actively disliked me – over his recent break up that it clicked.
The ‘Agony Aunt’ trope, and the history of emotional work it brings forth, condemns women to the role of unbridled listener. We are preordained, earmarked from birth it seems, for the very role I found myself in at 1am, staring desperately around for a way out.
It wasn’t just the innocent, if somewhat self-indulgent, souls seeking quick validation either. It appears somewhere between my teenage years and adulthood, the ‘family trouble’ conversation had become the ultimate chat-up line. There it was, a supposed way into my heart. Taking under the thin veil of giving.
“We have become so inundated with the personal stories we see snippets of online that we have forgotten how to listen to the ones closest to us.”
As my drunk mind tried to grasp the implications of this, I wondered how he would receive my own woes. Toeing the line of social convention and remembering the mistakes of my childhood, I decided not to unleash my darkest moments onto this relative stranger.
Our worlds are full of words, strung up and immortalised through our continuous posting on social media. With our incessant need for an opinion comes our desire to be understood. We have become so inundated with the personal stories we see snippets of online that we have forgotten how to listen to the ones closest to us. The information we share is fragmented, with the line between stranger and close friend becoming blurred.
Despite this seemingly ubiquitous trend, the term ‘oversharer’ is readily thrown around to define the apparently womanly desire to disclose. I had spent enough time reading so-called confessional literature, books such as I Love Dick by Chris Kraus and Break.up by Joanna Walsh, that spilled every excruciating detail of the author’s life onto the page, to know how this desire was received.
“Women traditionally bear the emotional brunt of the men around us, but we are rarely afforded the same privilege in return.”
Such work was often called narcissistic, or deeply self-interested, by critics. I had heard women be called crazy for indulging in this desire at parties, had even been complicit in this judgement myself. This was a tradition deeply entrenched in the patriarchy, determining who was the one listening and who was being heard.
Women traditionally bear the emotional brunt of the men around us, but we are rarely afforded the same privilege in return. Listening to yet another unfiltered stream of consciousness from a man about his mother’s illness I felt a genuine sense of camraderie, empathising in this pain which, whilst he may not have been aware, I shared. Despite not knowing this person at all, maybe this was the start of a friendship. Unremarkably, I didn’t hear from him again.
It isn’t that I subscribe to the ‘men are trash’ statements emblazoned on the social media accounts of hashtag feminists, commonly, albeit light-heartedly, deferred to in moments of annoyance. Those that know me will attest to the many close male friendships I hold dear and my need to understand those around me to feel secure.
Between friends, the sharing of stories is an essential exchange. To let someone in on a secret is to share a part of yourself. We hope it is reciprocal. From experience, the best relationships are. To be known completely is the ultimate human pursuit. But to maintain these kinds of relationships takes a mutual commitment; it was what defined being connected.
As the woes of strangers began to infiltrate my days and dreams, I started to wonder whether it might save me the emotional labour if I slipped them a tenner towards some therapy and quietly excused myself.
Tallulah Belassie-Page a freelance journalist and News & Politics Editor for The New Feminist Magazine. She specialises in gender and politics as well as conservation and climate change. @BelassiePage
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