From A to Z: Sugar, Salt, and Toxic Masculinity

A: “Hey, have you heard of this concept of toxic masculinity?”
Z: “Oh, yeah, I have, but I’m not really sure what it means. I’ve seen on Facebook people talk about it. Some folks are like, ‘It’s when boys are told that they shouldn’t cry.’ But then I see other folks say that it’s trying to shame men for being men.”
A: “Yeah, I’ve seen that too. I’ve been thinking that people aren’t on the same page when they talk about it. I think it’s because of adjectives.”
Z: “Adjectives? What do you mean?”
A: “Well, when some people hear ‘toxic masculinity’, they think that people are linking the two together. It’s like saying ‘sweet sugar’. All sugar is inherently sweet. So in the same way, it sounds like ‘toxic masculinity’ is saying that all masculinity is inherently toxic.”
Z: “Huh, OK.”
A: “But I think other people are saying ‘toxic masculinity’ is a type of masculinity, different from other types. So it’s like ‘salt’. There’s many different kinds of salt. There’s table salt, bath salt, Epsom salt, road salt. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a salt. Salt of Saturn is a salt that can cause lead poisoning. If you use the wrong kind of salt in cooking, you can kill people.”
Z: “So you’re saying that when some people are saying ‘toxic masculinity’, they’re saying that not all expressions of masculinity are bad, but that some are?”
A: “Right. So there’s ‘toxic masculinity’, which is like ‘salt of Saturn’, and can poison people. But then there’s good kinds of salt, like table salt.”
Z: “In that case, when someone uses the phrase, ‘toxic masculinity’, what do they mean?”
A: “It really depends. Some may be saying that all expressions of masculinity are bad. Others may be saying that some, but not all, expressions of masculinity are bad, like those that lead to men sexually assaulting women. You can’t really tell which one someone is using unless you ask them what they mean.”
Z: “Then if someone uses the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’, I should ask them ‘What do you mean by that?’ before reacting?”
A: “Yeah, I would say so. That’s generally a good idea in conversation, anyway.”

You. Me. Us

Let me share something that has helped me a lot:

In every relationship, there are three parts. You. Me. Us.

You and Me are separate from each other (yes I know that it’s “I” not “Me” in this tense but never mind that). We are independent of each other. We have our own lives apart from each other.

But Us is this third thing between You and Me. Us is the combination of our interactions, our history with each other, our communication patterns.

You and Me may be healthy, wonderful, mature people. But the Us between You and Me could have a lot of problems. It’s like Nutella and Sriracha. Both are good things that don’t work well together.

This idea of Us is important to remember if we get in conflict. Because if I say “I want to talk about Us”, you may think I’m saying “I have a problem with You.” Then when I share the problems I’m having with Us, you could think that I’m attacking You.

In conflict, You and Me can seem like we’re on opposite sides. But maybe we’re actually on the same side. Maybe both of us recognize that Us isn’t working, and we want to fix it. Hopefully, neither of us want a dysfunctional Us. Maybe we need to change how we do Us to make our lives as You and Me better.

So if I have a friend who takes up a lot of space in conversation, I don’t have to say, “You talk too much.” I can say “In our conversations, I would appreciate it if I had more space to talk.” This way, I share what I want to get out of Us, instead of blaming You.

I’m not saying that this approach works all the time. Sometimes there may really be an issue with You. But this approach has helped me navigate conflict well.