I never would’ve imagined I’d be a lonely person—my fiancée used to joke about how I’d run into a friend everywhere I went. But then we found ourselves in a tough spot and moved out of the city. I got sober shortly after that. And the pandemic happened a couple of months later.
Over the course of those few years, I went from a social barfly to a lonely caterpillar. My apartment was my leaf, and I spent most days crawling—figuratively and, yes, sometimes literally—from one end to the other. My old friends were far away. I worked from home. Alcohol, the ultimate social lubricant, wasn’t in the picture anymore. Social distancing meant seeing people wasn’t really on the table.
I guess you could say I’d become a statistic. Polls, surveys, and studies show that rates of male loneliness are going in one direction, and it’s not the good one. A 2021 American Perspectives Survey found that 15 percent of men have zero close friends, a fivefold increase from 1990. I was getting there; even after vaccines rolled out, I was a new person in a new place, living a new, homebound lifestyle.
That’s when, in the summer of 2020, I was invited to join a group chat with the boys (two of my long-lost college roommates, to be specific) and started seeing a dim light at the end of a long, lonesome tunnel. It began as a space for sharing deranged memes, but evolved into an unexpected bastion of friendship, betterment, and self-realization that ultimately quashed my loneliness.
Scrolling through those early correspondences isn’t easy. I was struggling with sobriety, violently burned out, physically friendless, and sending a near-constant stream of despondent messages. I was, as I expressed in the chat, one bad day at work and a missed meditation away from a mental break. But the boys replied in earnest, not with “man up” messages, but with validation, encouragement, and invitations to read and discuss anti-anxiety books like Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Within the first few days of joining, I was met with optimism in the form of three words, repeated over and over: “It’s OK, dad.” (“Dad” is a term of endearment we call one another, and no, I don’t know why.)
For reasons good and bad, all-dude group chats have made headlines in the last few years. In a recent appearance on The Kelly Clarkson Show, actor and well-known Dunkin’ devotee Ben Affleck divulged that he’s been trying to join a Wordle chat with fellow male celebs Matt Damon, Bradley Cooper, and Jason Bateman. Online, the news was met with an enthusiastic “dudes rock,” likely because playing Wordle is much more wholesome than what we’ve come to expect from guys and their group chats: The all-male, far-right Proud Boys planned the Jan. 6 insurrection via group chat, for example, and on occasion, leaked messages show boys and men to be racist, sexist, homophobic, and everything awful in between when they gather over instant messenger. Just a few days ago, a 21-year-old National Guardsman was arrested for leaking classified U.S. intelligence documents to a Discord group chat named Thug Shaker Central, known for discussing guns and video games and sharing racist memes.
This strange binary of male group chats—either wholesome and boyish or offensive and criminal—has been the subject of many memes, TikToks, and viral tweets. In some, men’s group chats are portrayed as spaces for ludicrous discussion and activities like sharing photos of your balls. In others, the assumption is that the conversation is more misogynistic; that men take to group chats to watch clips of Andrew Tate, be racist, and brag about cheating on their girlfriends. And in quite a few, the sentiment is that, whatever’s happening in male group chats, it’s probably best that we don’t ask questions and look the other way.
It’s true that, as with any gathering of people, the male group chat can go in many different directions. It can certainly be an unmoderated space for guys to give in to their worst impulses, emboldened by other guys doing the same. But the hypercasual, text-based, meme-filled format can also encourage levels of positivity and vulnerability that we rarely see from men, and the weirdness that ensues is simply part of the process: When the chat reaches a standard of such absurdity and comfort that you’re consensually sharing ball pics for the lulz, discussing trauma, mental health, and even your deepest, darkest secrets becomes a breeze. From entering rehab to kicking off psychotherapy to starting Zoloft for debilitating depression, the topics discussed in my chat are sometimes even kept from our own families.
Not to mention that the comedic relief makes the male group chat an appropriate space for keeping your friends in check without things getting heated. “It’s a place of accountability and truth,” said Casey, 30, a member of my group chat and my sober buddy (all the men I interviewed asked that I withhold their last names). “Shame has always been one of the biggest pitfalls to my sobriety, and I never feel that in the chat.” (Our chat is known for its “accountability checks,” daily check-ins to make sure everyone’s accomplishing their goals, from therapy to meditation to exercise or just staying sober.)
For men in particular, a group format—whether group therapy or a simple group chat—is also generally accepted by psychology experts to be more conducive to vulnerable conversations than, say, one-on-one therapy. “A lot of men have experience with teams, whether sports, units in the military, or even Scouts from their childhood,” said Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, psychologist, president of United Suicide Survivors International, and author of the Guts, Grit & The Grind series on men’s mental health. In these sorts of groups, she continued, “It’s OK for them to hug each other, for them to cry when they don’t make the championship, whatever—they have a lot more permission, often, to express emotions in these tightly knit teams than they do with a stranger.”
And since multiple people inhabit a boys’ chat, there’s a high likelihood that someone will be there when you need them. It’s like a perpetual stew of conversation where you’re able to pop in and out throughout the day to share thoughts, give advice, and respond to questions. “Nonstop, morning-to-night conversation inevitably raises deep thoughts and feelings,” said Jackson, 29, another member of my group chat, who also found himself struggling with loneliness and dejection during the pandemic. “We’ve acted as a support network for each other through severe mental health issues, addiction, depression, familial conflict, resurfacing childhood trauma, births, and deaths.”
Lately, we’ve been having lengthy, complex discussions about our feelings of inadequacy and how society and our upbringings contributed to them. But the small things make a big impact, too: When I let the chat know that my grandma was on her deathbed, they replied with “sorry to hear that” and “gam gams are life.” It might not seem like much, but I didn’t have many other people to talk with, and it’s what I needed to hear.
It’s not just my group chat that gets this candid. Michael, 35, is a self-proclaimed “pillar” of two male group chats: a sillier 11-guy chat, and a more intimate three-man chat. The latter is where heavier discussions go down, which, for Michael, includes unpacking his childhood with a severely mentally ill parent. “Having grown up together, both of my friends had a vague understanding that my home life was off,” he told me. “But as I’ve revisited my upbringing and processed what I experienced over the years, I’ve relayed my findings to them in the chat, and it’s been cathartic. For much of my life, it was something I never spoke about, even to my closest friends. It’s not the kind of subject matter dudes typically broach with each other. But that group chat has provided a space for us to do exactly that.”
There’s certainly something cleansing about using your group chat as a journal, an act that’s been proven to help your mental health. But Michael suspects that there are other reasons why men may feel especially comfortable sharing in a group-chat format. “There’s a tacit understanding that things shared there are shared in confidence,” he said. “Guys don’t have a habit of calling each other up and getting into hours-long emotive conversations with each other the way women do with their girlfriends … There’s a greater degree of emotional distance when you share your thoughts via text, and that, ironically, makes it safer for dudes to express themselves.” (Compared to women, men are far less likely to seek mental health treatment, or even discuss their mental health, because of our culture of masculinity and “sucking it up.”)
This casualness could help explain why it’s no stress—and maybe even a welcome reprieve—if someone jumps in to plop a meme in the middle of one of these otherwise sincere conversations: “All this seriousness working in parallel with a firehose of silly social media content is a curious representation of modern male friendship,” Jackson said.
Curious, yes, but also effective: A 2019 study found a correlation between time spent in group chats and relationship quality and self-esteem, and a 2021 study found that familial group chats are “associated with higher family functioning and well-being.”
While my college roommates and I aren’t technically family, we might as well be at this point, all thanks to our group chat. Sure, at face value, my life doesn’t look all that different than it did during those lonely pandemic days. I still spend most of my time alone at home (though there’s less pandemic-induced anxiety-crawling). But I don’t feel alone anymore, because I know my friends are just a message away, armed with memes, madness, and an enthusiasm for picking apart our psyches. And really, that’s all a guy needs.