What’s the point of asking RU OK? when “men don’t talk”

By Glen Poole

Today is R U OK? Day, a national day of action that aims to inspire people all over Australia to look out for each other by regularly asking ‘R U OK?’

We’re big fans of R U OK? at the Stop Male Suicide project and yet a lot of people wonder “what’s the point of asking a man if he’s ok, when men don’t talk!?”

And they’ve got a point. I’m the first to admit that we have a problem with men talking about their problems. so seriously—what is the point of asking a man R U OK?

I could just shrug my shoulders and let R U OK? Day pass me by without thinking about it (I’m good at avoiding and ignoring problems) but this problem we have with men not talking is going to bother me all day if I don’t do something about it —and as men would rather fix problems than talk about them (apparently) then let me see if I can fix this problem in the space of one article.

So first, let’s check whether the problem’s real. Is it true that “men don’t talk”? I don’t think it is. Turn on the news, blokes talking about politics. Flick on the radio, blokes talking about footy. Walk into any work canteen or café, blokes talking about cars. Go into a pub, blokes talking about politics, footy and cars.

Men Talk About The World From The Outside In

You get my point, men love a yarn, but maybe one of the big differences between men and women is that in general, men tend to talk about the world from the outside in, while women talk about their world, from the inside out.

And do you know what, there’s nothing wrong with that!

One of the reasons current approaches to stopping male suicide can be ineffective is they mostly target people who report suicidal thoughts and feelings (most of whom are women). In other words, they take a feminine, inside-out approach to suicide prevention, which overlooks the fact that the masculine way of making sense of the world, tends to work from the outside in.

Ask a man “R U OK?” and he might say: “Sure, just got a promotion; kids are doing great at school; I’m thinking of getting a new car and my team is having a great season”.

In other words, he’ll tell you what’s going on from the outside in. There’s nothing wrong with that it just doesn’t tell you in words, what’s going on from the inside out—which is what we’re really asking when we say “R U OK?”.

So when we say “men don’t talk” what we really mean is “men don’t talk” about what’s going on from the inside out.

Is that true? Well yes and no. Yesterday I was chatting with an Aboriginal men’s worker in WA about a suicide prevention project that had produced two DVDs, one for men and one for women.

Men Love Helping Their Mates 

We were talking about men’s outside-in way of talking and he nodded and said: “The women in the DVD all talk about themselves, their feelings about things, from the inside out. The men, they talk about the problem from the outside in.”

His take on this was that men are programmed to look after others first and as he said this, I was reminded of the excellent MATES in Construction suicide prevention program. According to the CEO of MATEs (who spoke at our Brisbane seminar) men may not be great at getting help but they love to give help.

Seeing this tendency as a strength, MATES decided it wouldn’t try to teach individual construction workers how to get help with their problems, they would train all construction workers to help each other instead. That way, any construction worker who needs help (with a mental health issue for example) will be surrounded by men who know how to give help!

It’s a classic, masculine, fix-it solution that tackles the problem from the outside in. So, if we really want to tackle the “problem” that “men don’t talk” about their problems from the inside out, then maybe we need to apply the same thinking.

Men DO Talk If You Know How To Listen 

I’ve been working with and studying men’s projects around the world for over 15 years now and one of the key lessons I’ve learnt is that men of all backgrounds do talk when the person they are talking to knows how to listen. This suggests that rather than telling individual men to change the way they talk, we all need to change the ways we listen to men instead.

Have you ever noticed that the way we talk can change, depending on who’s listening?  The way we speak and the amount of information we reveal, can change dramatically in different contexts such as job interviews, talking to work colleagues, yarning with mates, speaking to children, chatting with our parents or grandparents, responding to a cold caller trying to sell us something on the phone or talking to a traffic cop who’s pulled us over in our car.

In these scenarios, it is the person (or people) listening to us who shape the way we talk. And the same is true for men at risk at suicide. The degree to which a man will “open up” and talk about what’s really going on for him, depends on the person he’s talking to.

What this means is that if you want to be the kind of person who men do talk to, it may start with you asking R U OK?, but to become expert, you need to develop the way you listen to men.

How To Talk To Men From The Inside Out 

Back to the Aboriginal men’s worker I was talking with yesterday. He told me that if he knew a man was doing it tough, he would get a sense of what that man was thinking and feeling and then talk to him, from the inside out, by sharing a personal story of where he had experienced something similar.

The result of this approach was that the man he was talking with would respond by talking about what he was dealing with, from the inside out.

This is a great example of a man with advanced listening skills, a man who can listen from the outside-in, by first observing another man’s circumstances and actions and getting a sense of what the man is thinking and feeling, from the inside out—and then knowing who to start a conversation in way that gives the man permission to talk.

Deep listening of this nature requires you, as the listener, to have empathy for men (which means “to feel with”) and even compassion for men (which means “to suffer with”) as well as the all important ingredient of unconditional love, for all men and boys.

So when you reach out to mates today and ask R U OK? remember their ability to talk is shaped by your ability to listen. Men DO talk if you know how to listen and sometimes,      if all they want to talk about is sport, cars and politics, then that’s okay too, you can practice your listening skills by really feeling the pain they felt when the boys lost in the Grand Final.

If you want to learn more about how you can develop your listening skills, there’s a  whole chapter on “Talking With And Listening To Suicidal Men” in our new book “You Can Stop Male Suicide”.

And the R U OK? website has some great tips on how to ask a mate R U OK? today, or any other day.



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