What does it Mean to Be a Man?

by Harsh Kushwah

What does it Mean to Be a Man

In 2022, a filmmaker posed the question – ‘What is a woman?’ and controversy ensued.

It seems many of us don’t know how to answer that question. 

And it became a trending topic. 

The Prime Minister of the UK, Rishi Sunak, was asked this question. He replied with the dictionary answer – A woman is ‘an adult female human’.

So, as the Editor of menPsyche, I thought I would delve into the seemingly obvious question of what it means to be a man, in case anyone is struggling with the concept.

A Question of Definitions

If you are on a quest to discover what being a man means, you may ultimately realise that it may be a question of deciding what being a man means to you.

definition of a real man

There are many social and internal reasons why someone may have difficulty defining what being a man means.

Isn’t a man one of those people with short hair, downs a beer after work and marries a women? Ahh, we can think of a few problems with this already!

And varying definitions are part of the problem.

There’s the dictionary version – ‘An adult male human’, then there are issues surrounding gender versus biological sex and more philosophical discussions around ‘manly’ traits or desired qualities.

Gender norms and stereotypes do confuse the answer for some – and that’s perfectly understandable, depending on your viewpoint.

Others come at the question purely from a biological standpoint. Men have physical attributes that separate them from women. Also a fair response to the question.

The confusion among boys about what being a man means was discussed in our previous article, all about the ‘Male Psyche.’

Boys and men are confused. 

Ultimately, does it matter how others define ‘men?’

If we can’t all agree on one standard definition, perhaps the way forward could be for each person to decide what it means to them. 

what makes a man a man

Below, I discuss my thoughts on what being a man might mean today.

A Word About Men’s Bodies

For many, a man has unique anatomy that distinguishes him from a woman.

And the answer to ‘What does it mean to be a man?’ is as ‘obvious’ as that. No more discussion required.

The world we live in, however, is not as simple as this previously used definition.

Some people are born without these physical characteristics. Others feel there is more of a ‘spectrum’ or that physical characteristics don’t define men and women.

But as I suspect, the issue of definitions, as discussed above, means there are other viewpoints on this today.

The school I attended had men and women classified or defined by their differences in anatomy.

This is not necessarily agreed upon by everyone.

Do male and female bodies determine who is a man or a women to you?

1. A man is a ‘Builder’

Okay, I don’t mean a builder of structures, although, the majority of on-site construction work around the world is performed by men (In the UK, 99% of on-site workers are male. Some countries, like India, may have a higher percentage of female construction workers, but overall, it’s often men doing the building – literally!).

This point about what it means to be a modern man refers to men helping to build society as part of what it means to be a man.

Being a man might mean respecting other’s opinions as well as your own.

Sometimes, in certain cultures or families, men may receive ‘signals’ that their opinion is more valid because they’re men.

Men can, therefore, be part of building a society and using their unique viewpoint and experience of being male. A way to do this might be to begin to be a part of a more equal, respectful way of communicating than what you might have picked up in your youth.

You want your opinions heard, so you may want to listen to others. 

The ‘other side’ might have valid points that you might miss.

Respecting other’s opinions goes a long way when you want your points counted. In a civilised society, respect helps in constructive discussion. 

Even if someone completely disagrees with you, but is willing to listen to you, you have a chance of moving forward.

As men, many of us are conditioned to believe we are ‘the builders.’  However, in society, there is another perspective. 

To create a society that is equitable, just and fair to all the members of the society, a man can employ his builder mindset in creating platforms to share ideas, understand perspectives and listen to those who also want to build.

what makes a man a man

2. Willingness to take tough decisions

As men, we are often compelled to make tough decisions – societally. 

However, deciding to take personal responsibility is often not a prominent message.

We are brought up sometimes thinking people ‘owe’ us just because we are male – this is an entitlement (and yes, women can be like this, too). People are not born entitled – they are generally ‘made.’

Getting too caught up with societal responsibilities, some men may tend to ignore personal ones. 

It often creates conflicting situations for them. Here, willingness to make tough decisions at a personal level as well as social could prove crucial.

Men have to let things go and not fight all the time. The key to a contented life as a man probably isn’t a 24-hour-a-day scene from Fight Club!

Think about winning the ‘war’ (your quality of life), not each little battle. 

One of the most challenging decisions a man may encounter is sometimes making No decision.

What does it mean to be a man

It’s much more complicated than it sounds.

Try to free yourself from being a problem solver and solution provider. I know for many guys, ‘acting’ was drilled into them from such an early age (‘Look after your sister’).

The tough decision, in this case, is to go against your pre-conceived gender norms and assumptions, let others look after themselves sometimes, and decide to let things go.

3. Ready to adapt to changing circumstances, especially societal.

“When in Rome…”

Being a man these days entails the survival skill of ‘adaptation.’

Adapting to society, changes in the economy, climate – you name it, modern life changes so quickly that Rome looks different every week!

Apart from external environmental changes, there are psychological challenges to contend with.

You might become a target for the ‘Alphas’. 

The territorial nature of men can make you a target if you fail to adapt to the circumstances. Even if you are not doing anything (or inadvertently giving off mixed signals), it might trigger a threat response.

To avoid unnecessary confrontations, try to adapt socially

man adapting socially

Being a man often comes with adapting to new societal conditions. It can be taxing and consume a lot of energy. It can stress a man mentally and physically.

One of the most essential adaptations a man has to do is find a way to relax in new conditions. 

Being a man means being able to find a way to reduce stress without causing an impact on others (i.e. Anti-social forms of stress release).

What does it mean to be a man

4. Find Your Place Within Your Family or Societal Group

Brother, Father, Son, Husband.

A man is one (or all) of these things in a family structure.

He may ‘mother’ someone or be feminine and nurturing, however, he will still carry these labels and their subsequent expectations.

The cultural expectations on all gender roles are deep-rooted. Some are stronger than others, and some cultures more or less reinforce these roles.

Being a man means understanding his unique situation and deciding how he will ‘show up’ in his place or position.

It’s not about ‘fathers teaching sons’ or ‘protecting your mother’ roles etc. It’s more about what your personality and skills can bring to the table in harmony with the other members of your social groups.

Protecting and providing may be in your definition of being a man – but it also needn’t be. Your role as a man may be quite different.

5. Hero Complex – Make it Simple

The above point brings us to the ‘Hero Complex’ many men feel a calling toward.

If I had a dollar for every film made with a male hero saving the day – well, you know the answer.

A man can save a woman (or a man), but a woman can just as easily save you.

How many of you have been ‘saved’ by someone, not literally from the mouth of a tiger, but from a dangerous path in life?

And this brings me to the topic of fragile masculinity.

Unfortunately, men who have an ‘uncomfortable’ or unhealthy relationship with ideas around masculinity can end up showing up as ‘Heroes’ in society.

Instead of being the confident characters they attempt to display, they suffer from an inferiority complex or confusion about their maleness.

What does it mean to be a man

The result is often personal and collateral damage.

Instead of feeling it’s your duty ‘as a man’ to save people, why not simplify and adapt your responses?

A man can have feminine traits, wear long hair, and work in a female-dominated profession – and still be a man.

The out-of-date notion of the muscly superhero is not helping anyone.

We can admire Superheroes for courage, empathy, and skill – but it’s not ideal to value the ‘saviour’ part of their story.

You can save yourself, and that usually helps others.

6. Explorers, Innovators, Creators

The world as we know it today came about from brave humans exploring new frontiers.

By working together, they could be part of building better civilisations (see the first point about building societies).

So, while women had the role of birthing children, the male psyche perhaps had space to not only prepare for the family but also to ‘see what else is out there’ and invent new ways.

All this is obviously not the sole domain of men. However, men’s brains are wired differently to women’s – structurally and chemically different.

Men, for instance, show better motor and spatial skills. (It’s important to note that such differences in brains do not apply to individuals – they are group research and observations and generalisations).

Particular desires and abilities might be more ‘natural’ for some men. Exploring, creating new spaces, and inventing (as opposed to ‘nesting,’ nurturing or caring for people). Being interested in ‘things.’ 

Of course, we cannot overlook opportunities when discussing this topic. Many women may be as capable as men (or better) at these concepts but have not had the chance.

However, the differences in male and female human brains suggest that they are different for a reason.

And not all ‘male’ behaviour relates to societal norms and expectations.

What drove men of the past to explore and invent? Did they have ‘spare time,’ or was it part of their psyche as men?

It might be an individual quality once again. But it’s worth considering the role men have taken in creating and building the world and whether it’s in our ‘blood’ as men to be active in these spaces.

So, What is a Man?

After all this discussion, are we closer to understanding the question?

A man is a human, first of all. I think we can all agree on that.

Then, he takes personal responsibility, learns what his role is in society and adapts to changes.

what makes a man a man

He works on himself and doesn’t change or control others.

His identity is not based solely on his career or societal position but on his character.

It’s not about his name but his principles.

He may show fairness in his actions and have convictions in his words.

And he may be ‘an adult male human,’ but he can also be much more.

And before you say – ‘But don’t all these traits relate to everyone?’

The answer is Yes – and that’s the point.

From my point of view, being a “man” means firstly being a human. It starts here.

So, men, you can freely leave behind the archaic stereotypes and gender roles, take control of yourself and become the man you always looked up to. That’s my take on the subject. What’s yours?

Harsh Kushwah has published research papers, written a thesis and developed mathematical models on social influence and effects of demographic processes on the adoption of ideas.


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