Are we missing men’s emotions? Re-imagining banter as a form of emotional expression for men

Are we missing men’s emotions? Re-imagining banter as a form of emotional expression for men

Kitty Nichols

Men and the expression of masculinity has become a contentious topic. The rapid development and wide-reaching interest in campaigns and movements including #metoo and #masculintysofragile have highlighted problematic issues associated with dominant forms of masculinity, with men often depicted as unthinking and emotionless. Such views have built on historical accounts of masculinity which depict men as experiencing difficulties in expressing their inner feelings (Lilleaas, 2007).

Whilst critique is timely and necessary, this has resulted in a narrow view of men, with the nuances of men’s behaviours being obscured. I believe that when we are talking about men in this broad sense we are missing something important. Drawing on research with a men’s Rugby Union team from Northern England spanning four years, this article will suggest that contrary to popular imagination and historical notions of masculinity, men are indeed showing signs of emotion, adapting tools previously associated with dominant forms of masculinity, such as banter to evoke change and show more diversity within masculinity.

Banter refers to a specific type of jocular interaction that is playful in nature, but characterised by it’s often impolite, offensive, and abusive tone.  An interactive practice that permeates many spheres of the social world, it is particularly prevalent within male-dominated spaces, synonymous with particular forms masculinities including lad cultures and toxic masculinity. Significantly though, banter has been utilised to explain or justify often problematic behaviours. For example, in leaked comments by President Donald Trump, offensive and misogynistic comments about women were passed off as ‘locker room banter. This high-profile case is just one of many in which banter has garnered negative attention on a large scale.

So, it seems that banter has acquired a bad reputation and, most pointedly, has been utilised as a way to support the argument that men are dispassionate and reticent in their behaviours. Here I suggest that banter is not wholly negative and that if as a society we want to explore and understand issues such as everyday sexism and men’s mental health, a more in-depth engagement with banter is crucial.

Spending long periods of time observing and talking to men via my research, I am painfully aware of the issues associated with banter, witnessing first-hand how the dominant forms of masculinity conveyed through banter can constrain and have harmful effects for men. Rugby clubhouses and sports locker rooms are sites which are strongly associated with men’s banter, due in part to the connection to performances of toughness and physical strength. These have historically been sites where ‘boys can be boys’ and spaces where expression of feeling has been seen to contradict valued sporting characteristics (Anderson and McGuire, 2010). However, as my research progressed, I thought critically regarding how banter enabled the men to manipulate the limitations of their masculinities and challenge dominant forms of masculinity.  The men were often acutely aware of their emotions and were creative in their display of emotion.

Innovative approaches to the expression of emotion were explored during a discussion with Mark a fifty-seven-year-old mechanic. Here new possibilities for understanding the construction, maintenance and dismantling of masculinity emerged.  We were discussing preconceptions of rugby players as being tough with limited capacity to show emotion. Mark was frustrated by public perceptions and noted that

‘people think that the emphasis is on us all being horrid to each other, when really it is not like that at all. It is our way of caring…I mean it’s no bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates, but it’s our way of doing the same thing.’

Engaging with conversations such as these highlight the need for a re-evaluation of the boundaries and limitations of existing understandings of men. Within this discussion, Mark suggests that there is an awareness of how men have to manage perceived expectations of their masculinity. Using the analogy of Kleenex and flowers, Mark acknowledges that men’s expression of emotion in this space manifests itself in ways which might not commonly be recognised as such. This poses some interesting questions and critiques for how we understand men’s demonstration of closeness and intimacy. This example provided a catalyst for consideration of the different ways that men express emotion and to pose the question of whether we have just been missing men’s emotional displays all along.

I began to focus on the strategic decisions men were making in relation to the emotional parts of themselves they presented to others. Social theorist and philosopher, Erving Goffman (1959), proposes the idea of ‘impression management’, arguing that individuals make strategic decisions about the information they reveal or conceal from others, and suggests that people perform identities in order to fit expected roles. Mark’s comments stretch these ideas, as he is suggesting that men are aware of this process of impression management, actively engaging with this to enable multiple and contrasting forms of masculinity to exist in the space side by side.

What this research uncovered was that men had to negotiate their emotions and actively make choices about how and when they displayed emotion. This was conveyed by Dave, a twenty-two-year-old builder, who explained that he had to be selective in his expression of emotion noting:

‘you can show emotion, it just depends on your moment and how you do it…like I wouldn’t have a big DMC  in the changing room, I would do it out here with a pint’. [DMC is a colloquial expression for ‘deep and meaningful conversation’]

Here Dave acknowledges that he picks particular moments to share his emotions and once again indicates that there are certain ways to convey this. Both Mark and Dave insinuate that they carefully manage the emotional parts of themselves. This is interesting to build upon in order to further identify men’s experiences and understandings of emotion in both hyper-masculinised settings and beyond.

Many of the stories from the fieldwork resonated with those of Mark and Dave and I reflected on why banter had been the catalyst for this change, as well as the implications for how men were able to ‘do’ their masculinity differently (West and Zimmerman, 1987). These questions were addressed when talking to a twenty-seven-year-old teacher called Joe. He was talking openly about his mental health issues and the importance of the club in enabling him to keep what he referred to as ‘a little bit of balance’. He noted that

‘I know the stereotypes of rugby lads, I know that people wouldn’t expect us to be caring or supportive, but I am proof that isn’t true. We aren’t what people think, we really do love each other. Perhaps we have slightly less conventional ways of showing it, but we do care.’

This account is fascinating and draws out tensions between experiences such as Joe’s and firmly established notions of sporting masculinities. Joe described that he had been open with his emotions in the rugby space and that he did not feel this had led to his masculinity being questioned. This story not only suggests that popular representation of men in sport are problematic, it also raises the question of whether there is more capacity for agency and resistance within such sites of gender construction than has previously been conceived.

Whilst it would be unrealistic to argue that we have moved away from dominant forms of masculinity and the cultural and societal issues tied to this, it is evident that there is diversity and change which needs to be acknowledged. Through exploring banter, we can see that men are themselves disrupting long standing and prevalent types of masculinity, utilising the tool of banter to do so.  Viewing banter as an instrument to unravel existing understandings of masculinity presents new areas of thinking, however it is not without its challenges. Reconciling the tensions between banter as being a vehicle for men to express emotion, but also acknowledging that it can be constraining or damaging is difficult.  However, this blog post has briefly highlighted that banter can be both.  If as a society we want to better understand men and consider more diverse forms of masculinities, then we have to engage with the everyday aspects of men’s lives, including banter to do so.

Anderson, E. and McGuire, R., (2010) ‘Inclusive masculinity theory and the gendered politics of men’s rugby’, Journal of Gender Studies. 19 (3), 249-261.
Goffman, E., (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, London: Penguin Press.
Lilleaas, U. B., (2007) Masculinities, sport and Emotions, Men and Masculinities. 10(1), 39-53.
West, C. & Zimmerman, D. H., (1987). Doing Gender. Gender and Society. 1(2), 125-151.


Kitty Nichols is a sociologist working at the University of Sheffield where she teaches in the Department of Sociological Studies and The Social Research Methods Institute. Her research interests include, gender, sexuality, identity, sport, humour, language emotion and age.

Image: Max Pixel