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John Osterman
An arid landscape with flat sand dotted with green bushes and small trees in the foreground. In the distance and on the horizon are brown and rust-colored rock plateaus and formations, some extending thousand of feet high. The sky is a pale blue.

Sand in the Couscous

The barren expectations of American male friendship

Time is short and constraints are high


I never had male friendships like the ones I had while in Mauritania. We were more genuine, more open with feelings and emotions, and more physically affectionate—I’m talking shoulder massages, hand-holding, and such—than I was used to Stateside. That difference was partly because we were exposed to such foundation-shaking loneliness and isolation while in our towns and villages that, when we were together, we leaned on each other in ways I believe most of us had not done before.

Three men with hiking backpacks walk away from us through the semi-arid landscape. Small trees populate the mid-distance. Rock massifs and plateaus rise up in the background.
We’re on the first day of an overnight hiking trip somewhere outside Aioun, navigating one type of harsh environment.

But there’s also the harsh environment we were no longer exposed to: the barren expectations of American male friendship. Be tough. Hide your emotions. Don’t be gay. By leaving America behind, the constraints melted away. For two years, far from home, I enjoyed the freedom that being culturally unmoored allowed.

Social media and a global pandemic haven’t helped, but those constraints are surely partly to blame for the epidemic of loneliness facing our country. That epidemic has hit men especially hard, leading to the “male friendship recession”—in 2021 only 25 percent of men report having at least six close friends, down from over 50 percent in 1990.

I wish I could say I were immune to that trend. Being a work-from-home 46-year-old dad really doesn’t provide the cultural milieu that being a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer did. But then again, nothing does. Twenty months home from Mauritania, I was already lamenting the same feeling of loss:

1 Nov. 2004

Where is Sherif, where is Justin, where is Paul, Anton, Matt? I miss having friends like them—real friends. Emotionally vulnerable, dependable, genuine …

Twenty months have become twenty years. I’m lucky and thankful to have some friendships that meet that standard, but damn maintaining friendships is hard, and making new ones is even harder.

Time is short and constraints are high.