How Does a Real Man Act and What do They Value?

what does it mean to be a real man?
Image by Lorraine Cormier from Pixabay

What are the roles, principles, and behaviours of a real man?

If you, like me, grew up in a culture without a specific rite of passage that marks when you change from being a boy to a man, it can be quite hard to state exactly when you became a man and, by extension, what it means to be a man.

For me, no songs were sung, or words said. I was not cut or marked. I was not cast out or assigned a specific task or role. But at some point, I just was. A man. 

So, what happened and when? Was it when I went through puberty or grew to be as strong as my dad? Perhaps when I got my first job, or perhaps when I left home? Was it when I could legally marry, drive, or drink? Maybe it was all these things or none?

Being a man: is it a right or a responsibility?

Human rights – men’s and women’s rights – are very important. The UN charter was a huge stride forward in addressing injustices in society. But it seems that generally, people must state and stand up for their rights when other people are not living up to their responsibilities; the responsibility we all must respect, love and look after others, especially those less fortunate than us. 

And that is why I like to focus on personal responsibility when thinking about identity. If we take responsibility, within our sphere of influence, we can ensure the people around us are treated right. And it is hard to separate the concept of responsibility from what it is to be a man. Being a man involves taking responsibility. 

Responsibility means using our influence in the right way. And influence is leadership, so being a man also relates to being a leader. For clarity, I would apply the same logic to women as well. As boys become men and girls become women there is a change of expectation when it comes to responsibility. The responsibility of parenthood and the leadership required of both the father and mother is a great example of this step change in becoming an adult. 

We all have influence – to a greater or lesser degree – and therefore we all have leadership potential and responsibility as men and women leaders to use that influence for good. But that differentiates childhood from adulthood more that specifically becoming a man. So, we ask again: what makes a real man?

What makes a real man?

It is common to hear someone referred to as a ‘real man’. Which does beg the question, what does it mean to be a real man? It is also interesting that one is less likely to hear the phrase ‘real woman’! Perhaps gents – yes, I am speaking to all of you guys – this indicates an area where men have some real insecurities. There is some deep urge to be a real man.

So, what is a real man?

The idea of a real man is very dependent upon a given culture. The idealised man is visualised variously in different places and at different times. Even as I sit here typing I know that my idea of a man is very much dependent upon unconscious biases that I have developed from living in my setting.

But even this picture can vary considerably within a given country. Just imagine a picture of a real man in your country, but either in an urban or rural setting, and you will see what I mean. The ideas are often quite different.

It is important to remember that a lot of the things often associated with the idea of a real man are often cosmetic. For example, in some cultures, a real man wears a beard, in others, not. In some cultures, a real man is obese, in others, they are supposed to be buff. In other words, when people frequently talk about being a real man, they refer to present fashion or trends within a given culture. 

But these superficial ideas often indicate a deeper principle. As with the iceberg model of culture, the behaviours we observe are rooted in beliefs and values that are hidden below the surface. 

Being a net provider or contributor

There are some cultural similarities, beyond fashion, that point towards a common theme of manhood, and that is the idea of being a net provider. In other words, a person who contributes more to their family group than they take from it. 

Even unhelpful stereotypes of the real man, pictured as a gnarly hunter or successful businessman, point towards this deeper value. For example, I know for me that being financially independent of my parents was an important aspect of feeling like a man. Today, being able to provide for my family and contribute to my community is a key to my masculine identity, for good or ill. 

I say for good or ill as many men suffer crises when out of work or when they retire. They are not just made redundant, they feel redundant. There have been various studies that show that men, in particular, suffer more from mental health problems at retirement. This is generally linked to more traditional gender roles and men seeing themselves as the primary breadwinner for a family, whereas women place much more worth on their maternal roles. Put simply, guys are much more likely to have an action-orientated identity; they want to be doing something. Women generally place more worth in their relational links and therefore their identity is more shaped in that context.

This may change over time as traditional roles change but, at least for now, it is worth remembering. And we males should challenge ourselves with some questions. What is it that we like to do that brings real worth? How do the things we do contribute to our community? Are we making sure we connect with people, and really foster relationships, as well as just achieving tasks? What do we really value and what do we do that brings real value?

What are male values?

There are not any exclusively male values, but there are certainly some that are historically associated with men. When working out our personal values, understanding these expectations is important. Misunderstanding these cultural principles can lead to negative expressions or behaviours.

For example, the concept of being a man is often related to strength. This primarily stems from the physiological differences between men and women and that men are generally biologically wired to have greater physical strength than women. This is largely due to body size, as comparative studies have shown. There are hormonal differences too and the increased amounts of testosterone in men, compared to women, is a key factor, particularly through puberty.

Masculine values and behaviour

The idea of physical strength can be related to positive characteristics such as being a provider and protector. In modern Western society, the need for physical strength to achieve these positive outcomes (i.e., supporting and defending our people group) has reduced, but the association remains. And with it also come negative behaviours. The idea of strength is frequently misused through posturing, aggression, and violence. These behaviours most frequently manifest in society through men. For example, the UN 2019 study on homicide shows that men are both the major perpetrator, and victims, of murder.

In terms of linking positive behaviours and values, the poem If, by Rudyard Kipling is an evocative picture of how a man could embody the strength of character, and male-associated principles such as confidence, determination and honesty. 

If you can keep your head when all about you   

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

    But make allowance for their doubting too;   

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.

If – Rudyard Kipling

What does it mean to be a man today?

Due to the challenge of working out what it is to be a man, particularly in today’s culture, there are movements to help people think about what it is to be a man. Probably the most well-known of these is International Men’s Day (IMD), which falls on the 19th of November each year.

The idea of international men’s day is to “celebrate worldwide the positive value men bring to the world, their families and communities.” It does this through six core statements of purpose, the pillars of IMD.

The 6 Pillars of International Men’s Day (IMD)

The IMD objectives or 6 Pillars of International Men’s Day are:

  1. To promote positive male role models; not just movie stars and sportsmen but everyday, working-class men who are living decent, honest lives.
  2. To celebrate men’s positive contributions to society, community, family, marriage, childcare, and the environment.
  3. To focus on men’s health and well-being; social, emotional, physical, and spiritual.
  4. To highlight discrimination against men; in areas of social services, social attitudes and expectations, and law.
  5. To improve gender relations and promote gender equality.
  6. To create a safer, better world; where people can be safe and grow to reach their full potential.

In these statements what we don’t get is a definition of what a man needs to be. Instead, the provisions create an environment where men can work this out for themselves, in a positive way, with the support of others.

Helping men and boys

The theme for International Men’s Day in November 2022 is ‘helping men and boys’. So, for you guys out there, what can you do to help other men and boys? How can you contribute to your family, community, or team? And to you gals, how can you support the men you know in doing this? We, men, may pretend otherwise, but we need support and encouragement!

So, what does it mean to be a man?

There are no easy answers. But we have seen that men like to take action, so as you think about what you might do for IMD, let me leave the last words to Kipling, as something to ponder, as you work out what it is to be a man and help boys as they learn to do the same. 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

If – Rudyard Kipling

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