Monday, February 24, 2014

“Man Up”: Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

Luke is a 17-year-old senior in high school dating a junior named Brittany.  They have been officially dating for roughly five-months. Brittany is Luke’s first girlfriend and of course he is nervous about the right things to do and say with Brittany because he wants to impress her and be a “good” boyfriend.  They get into a minor argument at an after school program because of something Luke said, and Brittany rushes off angrily. Luke follows her up the hallway to see why she was upset but eventually stops to give Brittany some space.  The next day Luke approaches Brittany before class and asks what she was upset about. She replies “You should have just grabbed me like a real man and made me tell you yesterday”.          

            Robert was venting to his brother about a conversation he had with his supervisor.  Robert presented his findings at a meeting from a project he had been working on for six-weeks.  He thought his presentation went well, however his supervisor met with him afterward to provide feedback.  Robert’s supervisor believed his presentation could have provided stronger support with details on how the presented data could better benefit the company.  Robert was upset he did not get the praise he thought he deserved, so he went to vent to his brother and express his frustrations.  His brother replied with “Dude, you just need to man up! Your boss isn’t going to baby you”.

Unfortunately, these stories happen more often than not.  Men are constantly challenged to “Man Up” without regard to how such a statement can negatively impact one’s understanding of what it means to be a man.  A few weeks ago one of my Resident Assistants (RA) asked, “What does it mean when guys say man up?”  I chuckled slightly, but paused in my reply because I wanted to answer intentionally.  I briefly thought, what have I felt when someone has told me to “man up”?  I told my RA “man up” is a commonly used phrase that can have a number of meanings, as well as reactions; it is sometimes used to antagonize men into some sort of action, and unfortunately similar statements feed into societal expectations of how men should think and perform.  Messages such as I need to do better, I need to “grow a pair”, I need to be more mature, stop being a punk, and other alike thoughts can be associated with the phrase “man up”.

Though my RA was just curious, the question she asked is very powerful.  For example, in conversations with young men from around the world, author Michael Kimmel (2008) summarized ten notions of what the participants felt it meant to be a man. A few of them are: (1). ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, (2). ‘It’s Better to be Mad than Sad’, (3). ‘Don’t Get Mad – Get Even’, (4.) ‘Take It Like a Man’… (p. 45).  When I hear these phrases, I picture alarms sounding off in the inner voice or conscious that filters what transmits to the brain as “this is what a man is…”.  Well, instead of constantly challenging a man’s masculinity based on how he interacts with his everyday environment, I pose that people experiment with saying what they mean and mean what they say.  Clear communication can help alleviate misinterpreted messages, address one’s specific behavior and not their identity, and reduce unhealthy understandings of their identity. 

For instance, Brittany could have told Luke that she wished he would have followed her and waited until she calmed down to ask why she was upset.  Stating “you should have grabbed me like a man” can distort Luke’s understanding of how to treat a significant other that may not result in the most positive outcome.  In Robert’s situation, his brother could have validated Robert’s frustration while also challenging him to think about the feedback his boss provided and what can be improved for the future.  Saying “you need to man up” can desensitize Robert’s desire to express his feelings, which can fragment how he handles situations as a “man”.  Neither of these reactions communicates to the men how they can make an effective correction in their behavior. 

In an ideal world, we would hope that people would take to the time to articulate their thoughts rather than saying “man up” or “take it like a man”.  Our duty as educators is to encourage the environments around us to rethink their messages and how they can impact someone’s understanding of identity.  The task is not easy nor will it happen tomorrow, however taking steps to challenge the language we use in regard to masculinity will make us more aware of it in the environments we interact with.  Masculinity is multifaceted, fluid, and subjective to one’s own definition.  Being a “man”, however, is a little less complicated.  Comedian and writer, Erin Judge (2014), created a cleaver diagram that simplifies what a “man” is.  So, the next time you hear someone say “man up”, ask them to say a little more about what they mean, and maybe even share this diagram with them.

Photo from:

Judge, E. (2014, January 21). A definitive chart for determining if someone is a real man.
Retrieved from

Kimmel, S. M. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men.
New York, NY. Harper Collins Publishers.
Tim Hall is a Resident Director at Berklee College of Music.  He received his Masters of Education in Student Affairs from Iowa State University and is also a musician and poet. You can contact Tim through email:;
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