Can you make friends – good, true friends – in a pub? Joe Hackett explores

A man walks into a bar and he says ….well, what does he say?

Let’s suppose that he’s new to the area, looking to extend his circle of friends. A bar is as good a place as any to find a male friend. Pubs are a neutral meeting point. I’ve made friends in pubs – and I am not a big pub-goer. So what does this man who walks into a pub/bar do?  How does he join in a conversation, and what kind of conversation? SOME pub conversations seem almost designed to put you off joining in. Personally, I never want to talk about cars in a pub again. Car conversations can be boastful, nerdishly technical. Mine’s bigger/better/faster than yours. What’s the point? Life’s too short!

And here’s a warning about banter. As you know, some male pub chat is endless banter – which is teasing, taking the piss. The only way to join in is to out-banter the other guy – in other words, pretend that his teasing has not bothered you, be crueler and nastier than he is! I am not saying that we all have to be ultra-sensitive souls, with the thinnest of skins. I am saying that some banter is banal, and saps our energy. It leads nowhere. It is not the same as joking – which is wonderful! So, if the so-called conversation at the bar is nothing but banter, forget it.

Our brave protagonist (avoiding the car conversations, the narcissistic droning monologues of the pub bore, the competitive banter) perhaps finds a conversation in which he can join. He’s looking for a lively to and fro, listening and being listened to, conversational clues that take participants forwards. Something which stimulates.

I’d be looking for some kind of small self-revelation, which I can respond to or initiate. No need to run a mile at this idea – I don’t mean our deepest secrets, our most vulnerable issues. They can come later, if at all! No, I mean just something which illustrates the conversationalist’s particularity, his individuality. His uniqueness. I’m talking here about that person’s felt experience. Not his opinion. Opinion mongering is all too easy, goes nowhere.

And in looking for a good conversation, I’m reminded of the things which can go wrong. We all do them, to a greater or lesser extent, in talking to others. But with a bit of awareness, we can catch ourselves doing them, too.

BEWARE! ROADBLOCKS

Apparently, there are a dozen classic “roadblocks” to good conversation. Recognize any of them?

The first four come under the category of Judging:

1. Criticising
2. Name-calling
3. Diagnosing
4. Praising evaluatively

Then come conversation-killers under the category of Sending Solutions:

5. Ordering
6. Threatening
7. Moralising
8. Excessive/Inappropriate Questioning
9. Advising

Lastly, Avoiding the other’s concerns:

10. Diverting
11. Logical Argument
12. Reassuring

So, having a good conversation, especially at the start, isn’t easy! Which doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t try. The rewards are high. But, before you even plunge into a conversation, not knowing where it will lead, hoping for the best, looking for the positive, being both brave and open, there is a preliminary and very interesting question.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

How important do you reckon first impressions are in meeting another man (potential friend) for the first time? How trusting are you of your own judgement? Depending upon how tuned in the group of men and the man entering are, there is a whole lot of non-verbal stuff going on, too. Don’t they say that words only convey 30% to 40% of communication?

Let’s suppose that our guy is pretty observant. He’ll pick up body language by sight. The group of men have facial expressions, posture and gestures. He may be even close enough to see their eyes. Are they twinkling with fun, glowering with hostility, open to his presence, capable of trusting him enough to let him in?

Then, he’ll be listening for the vocal clues. Not just the words which are spoken, but the sound of the voices, rapidity of speech, the pauses. Is one pause to let him in, like a door opening? He listens to a particular man who is speaking. Is his voice a monotone (boredom) slow, low pitch (depression), high (enthusiasm), ascending tone (surprise), abrupt (defensive), terse, sharp (anger) or what? Our guest might even turn his eyes away for a bit, the better to take in the voices.

How are the men standing? Is their circle open to allow our man to join? Or is it closed, with people’s backs turned? And if our new man is really tuned in, he’ll be checking his own body, which is reacting, sure enough, to the body language of the group. Do his shoulders feel tense, his stomach queasy, does his heart start to beat faster? All this can change minute by minute, second by second in the “here and now” of the man’s approach to the group in the pub. As soon as he walked in, things were a little different, and they will change again, and again.

Personally, I’m interested in another aspect of all this, which is actually to do with what I can only call attractiveness and intuition. The older I get, the more I reckon that after the hard work of  studying  body language of others, tone of voice and so on, I can and do trust my own intuition. Hallelujah, after all these years! I’m not saying intuition is infallible. I’m just saying that I can trust it as a “good enough” guide at an encounter between me and another man. And if it lets me down sometimes, well, I forgive it and start again.

ATTRACTION

The idea of “attractiveness” gets us onto different territory. I can meet another man, a stranger, and know pretty soon – say, within ten minutes – if he’s “attractive” – that is, does his presence interest me, pull me in? Does it make me want more of him? Does his presence say to me, here is an opportunity for fun and learning? A lot of it will be in his face, particularly the eyes. An awful lot also depends on whether I can detect a playfulness in him – a flexibility, a willingness to take small risks, the enjoyment of interplay.

Of course, there is the gay question. Attraction between men does not mean they are both gay. If they are, fine. If one is and the other isn’t fine also. I am thinking here of attraction between two men who are heterosexual. Now, we all have our own take on heterosexuality, bisexuality and homosexuality, and this probably isn’t a big enough space to go into all that in detail.

I believe that there can be something about another guy (some spark, and it may well have to do with a sense of humour) which can pretty quickly attract me, make me want to know that person better. I think it’s a bit tragic that a lot of men actually fear that intimacy, fight that pull. It is something to do with the very limiting English “reserve”. It is also something perhaps to do with a fear which comes down to “If I get close to this guy, it must be because I’m gay/he’s gay”. Anyway, you are surely old enough to handle the “gay fear” question – which might not be said of younger men –  so that is one of the advantages of maturity. So let us assume that our man has miraculously established himself in the group of men chatting at the bar. Or, at least, on the edge of the group. He has joined in and is having a conversation and it is working. Congratulations.

Let us end with the eternal question. “Whose round is it?” This male-bonding technique so beloved of British pub goers is really, really unnecessary, I think. You don’t “have” to buy a guy a drink to show that you want to be friends. Nor does he have to buy you one. But it is a long tradition and, in the end, it is entirely up to you whether you dare ignore it. Getting stuck in rounds of buying drinks means you are, likely as not, going to end up drunk. Which might not have been your intention. Over to you.

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