Billy No-Mates: How I Realised Men Have a Friendship Problem   
By Max Dickins. Canongate. 2022. 336 pages

In 2009, an unknown Australian palliative care worker went viral. Bronnie Ware published a post on her blog entitled “Regrets of the Dying”. Based on her own conversations with patients, it recounted the most five common regrets experienced by those at the end of their lives. All of them are striking and important. Four are focused mostly on a personal shortfall or underachievement in their own lives. However, one regret reaches beyond the individual — “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”

At the end of life, in the solitude of illness, Ware’s patients wished they had worked harder to keep the fires of friendship burning.

For the people who spoke to Ware 14 years ago, work and money probably constituted their principal diversions from friendship. Today we can add gaming, the internet, and apps to the barriers that keep us from personal contact with others. Indeed, recent studies from Western nations confirm that our teens and 20-somethings are suffering increasingly from loneliness, and have significantly less developed friendship networks than prior generations. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends” is a regret that will become more pronounced and more poignant in the decades to come.

Billy No-Mates by Max Dickins presents a timely study of this problem, particularly with regard to men. Men more than women, Dickins argues, are struggling with social isolation and establishing and maintaining healthy relationships throughout their lives. Based in London, Dickins is a published playwright, actor, and comedian. At first sight, he seems an unlikely source for a study of the increasingly impoverished world of male friendships. Nevertheless, the book is well researched (its substantial and extensive endnotes are almost as interesting as the main text itself). And it is written in lively and engaging prose. That it has already been translated into numerous languages attests to the importance of its subject matter. Each chapter interweaves plentiful biographical anecdotes with serious explorations of its theme.

The motivation for the book was Dickins’ forthcoming marriage. He had just proposed to his girlfriend, Naomi. Naomi features throughout as Dickins’ confidant and foil as he shares his lessons on friendship with her. A serious problem emerges as the big day looms: Dickins is unable to identify someone who is sufficiently “best man” material among his circle of mates and acquaintances. Drawing up a list, he realises that some are colleagues with whom he has little contact outside of work. Others he has not spoken to, in some cases, in over two years. As each potential candidate is scribbled on a post-it note on his bedroom wall and dismissed, Dickins is confronted by a stark “cemetery of friendships”.

Reflecting on his social life, Dickins realises: “At some point I had either lost the knack of putting myself out there, or simply stopped bothering to try… Friendship has a rhythm and I had lost it. And the consequence, entirely by accident, was that I now had next to no social life.” For a comedian and actor, an archetype of extroversion, this admission may seem unlikely or exaggerated. However, Dickins cautions that being in the company of others merely because of one’s line of work does not equal friendship.

From these candid beginnings he sets out to rebuild his friendships and ultimately to choose a best man. Some of the book’s chapters explore friendship from theoretical and scientific perspectives, involving critical analyses of recent decades of academic research, and interviews with sociologists and evolutionary psychologists, among others. Other chapters see Dickins attempting practical solutions, such as joining a men’s choir, attending a hug therapy session, or literally renting a “friend” for a Saturday afternoon from an online service designed specifically for this purpose. While some of these pursuits are peculiar and marginal in the realm of human relations, Dickins’ willingness to experience them and share his reflections of their uses (and users) adds a sense of humanity and even frailty to this study. A dreary academic tome this is not.

One of the best things about this book is its unwillingness to write off men’s friendship struggles as rooted in modern concepts of gender (such as “toxic masculinity,” etc.)  Contemporary explorations of gender tend to refract men’s activity and behaviour through the lens of gender roles and performativity. Men, it argues, think and act as they do due to societal conditioning. And if they can be conditioned into certain behaviours, then they can be conditioned out of them too. At its worst, this paradigm dupes us into the false and dangerous idea that sex and gender are ultimately plastic, and only tangentially connected to irreversible biological realities.

Dickins’ book is refreshing in that it does not concede its argument to this paradigm but gives a fair hearing to an understanding of maleness and masculinity rooted in biological factors too. Perhaps this fearlessness stems from his day job — a comedian wading into contemporary gender wars has no skin in the game, no academic career to cultivate, and therefore nothing to lose. So he is not afraid to critique “the Vulnerability Industrial Complex” that prevails in contemporary discussions of masculinity and gender.

Drawing on research by social psychologists and sociologists, he argues that men and women tend to define intimacy differently. Aggression among men, he suggests, “is employed not as the opposite of intimacy, but as a way to achieve it.” In our vulnerability-soaked discourse, this can seem jarring. For men, “the more they like each other, the more bellicose they’ll be.” Reflecting on how this plays out in his own life, Dickins observes that the sometimes savage cut-and-thrust of male banter is “actually a perverse form of love. It is, in a real sense, intimacy in action, communicating both ‘I know you’ and ‘I know you trust that I’m not being cruel, that I have permission, that we are playing a game.’”

Male aggression (or play-aggression) is not necessarily toxic, but paradoxically intimate.

Dickins proceeds to question the modern insistence that men open up and talk about their feelings more publicly: “Could it be that choosing not to talk about stuff is a form of intimacy in itself?” He marshals a striking image from C.S. Lewis” The Four Loves to describe such encounters: “We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts.” In certain situations there is a value — and even a civic or societal necessity — to masking one’s feelings.

Such are Dickins’ findings on male friendship from the contemporary paradigm of gender roles and social constructs. So what insights about friendship can the “biological” paradigm yield? Dickins meets Robin Dunbar, Oxford anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, and originator of “Dunbar’s Number” — the idea that there is a cognitive limit to the number of meaningful social relationships that a human being can maintain at any one time. In other words, how many friends can someone realistically have? (For the curious, the answer is 150. This number is not divided equally, but rather comprises layers or gradations of individuals who are in increasingly intimate relationships to us.)

Dickins shares fascinating learnings from Dunbar here. For example, his research shows that we devote about 40 percent of our social efforts to the five most significant people in our friendship network. And, depressingly, our friendship networks peak around our mid-to-late 20s before decreasing steadily with each passing year. And what is the price of love? Well, falling in love takes such a toll on our time and effort that it tends to (unintentionally) evict two of our existing friends or family members from the more intimate layers of our friendship network, pushing them closer to the margins of that 150.

What do Dunbar’s findings suggest about male friendship? When it comes to “best friends”, men often struggle to name any one individual: “Dunbar explains that this reflects men’s preference for socialising in groups versus women’s strong preference for one-on-one interactions.” Dickins quotes Dunbar: “For men, talking to their friends makes absolutely no difference at all. Literally zero. What stops the friendship from declining is making an effort to do stuff together.” Dunbar continues: “For women, it’s talking to one another that creates and, crucially, demonstrates intimacy. For men, the point of talk is often just to exchange information, to move them towards the main course of the social feast: the organised activity.”

Dickins reflects on how Dunbar’s findings play out in that quintessential focal point of social life in Ireland and the UK: the pub. “It occurs to me that this is why the pub is such a crucible of many male friendships: there’s loads of other stuff going on. An endless supply of conversational time-outs: pool, darts, quiz machines, sport on the big screen — even our drinks serve this purpose, as we sip to fill in the gaps. Pure, unfiltered chat is too intense: we need a third point of contact to relax things a bit.”

Returning to the heated matter of gender, Dickins realises that Dunbar’s findings erode some of the modern verities regarding gender roles and conditioning. Men don’t struggle with intimacy because they are socialised to play a restrictive male gender role; rather, they are biologically less likely to have numerous intimate friendships.

Dickins refers to findings by Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist, who posited that for women, friendships were associated with childcare, an activity necessarily dependent on some measure of intimacy and trust. For men, however, friendships were traditionally about alliance-building, fighting off other male threats, and maintaining their position in the hierarchy. From this perspective, men’s struggles with friendship are not an exclusively modern phenomenon, or due to restrictive gender roles, or lack of intimacy or emotion. Rather, despite the complexities of friendship in today’s world, men may ultimately find themselves limited in their capacity for emotion, openness, and intimacy by the immoveable bedrock of biology and genetics.

The book is a lively exploration of the turbulent and impoverished world of men’s friendships. It successfully manages to rise above the reductive paradigms of gender that enflame today’s culture wars. Dickins does not profess to be an expert, and no one approach dominates his perusal of the subject. This is one of the book’s great strengths, affording Dickins the liberty to approach the theme from many angles, sometimes at odds, sometimes in harmony. It makes his interviews with various experts, his critical readings of academic literature, and his attempts at practising friendship itself at times insightful, at times humorous, and at times even poignant.

Musing upon what he has learned about friendship, he accepts that different friends fulfil different roles at different times, and that it is rare to find a “one size fits all” friend except, perhaps, one’s spouse. Different friends bring out different aspects of our selves: “we are different — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot — with different people. Each friend is like a mirrored wall in a decagon-shaped room: to see all of ourself, we need all of them.”

The book is written from a secular perspective. Despite encouraging appearances from C.S. Lewis, Christianity does not overtly colour Dickins’ argument. His eventual choice of best man was decidedly unorthodox, and his own marriage was a civil ceremony in a hotel.

Indeed, it is with regret that I must attach a content warning to the book. Unfortunately Dickins tries too hard when it comes to injecting humour into the narrative. Anecdotes that sound passable as part of a stand-up routine become crude and tasteless on paper. This veneer of blokey, sometimes lurid, and ultimately unnecessary jocularity really spoils the high quality, well-researched, and sensitively written prose that lies beneath it.

What’s the bottom line?

Surveying his research and experiences, Dickins emphasises that friendship takes effort, especially in adulthood: “For Aristotle, Cicero, and their ilk, far from being something we grow out of, friendship is something we grow into. They thought the young lacked the chops for it, which could only be hard won through practice.” Attempting to distil the book’s freewheeling exploration of friendship into a few take-home messages, Dickins concludes with three terse instructions: “Show up, when asked. Go first, when not. Keep going, even when it’s hard.” Effort, initiative, and fortitude — three virtues by which to live, and live among others.

David Gibney is a school teacher in Dublin. He holds a PhD in English literature.