boring older men

This piece was actually published in the Daily Mail, not the Telegraph

A few weeks ago I went to garden party given by an old friend. There were about 30 of us there, all longtime chums, mainly middle-aged or older. I was having such a good time chatting and catching up that something strange only occurred to me later. 

In all the fun and jollity, not a single man had spoken to me – and nor had I spoken to a single man!  While the women talked and reminisced, the men just went round with bottles of wine in their hands, filling glasses and saying nothing.  We’d smiled, said hello, but not had any actual conversation. 

Really, the men might as well not have been there. So why is it that so many men in my age group – mid-60s – are so stupefyingly dull?

If you go to a gathering where older people congregate – wedding anniversary, birthday party, funeral – you will discover it’s always the same story. The women will be chatty, lively and animated, talking to each other, while the men are cowed in a corner, shaking a few sad last grey hairs and staring into the distance.

Watch almost any older couple having dinner together in a restaurant or hotel and you will notice that they do not say a word to each other.  Instead, they spend the entire meal in complete silence. This scenario is so common it has almost become a cliché: the couple who never speak. Yet if you prise these women apart from the ever-silent hubby by their side, they will never stop talking.

As a single, divorced woman of sixty-plus, I sometimes feel desperate for some male company and conversation. But increasingly, it seems, I’m not going to find it.  Or at least, I’m not going to find a male to match my lively female friends

When I went on a very upmarket cruise a few years ago, I was looking forward to some interesting company, and fascinating exchanges at dinner. Instead, I found just the opposite. I was on my own, so had to make an effort to sing for my supper and strike up conversation with complete strangers. If only the men among the 600 or so passengers had made a similar effort. Instead, they sat through dinner without saying a single word. They never asked me a question and did not appear remotely interested in anything I had to say.

I got divorced in the late 1980s, and then met a wonderful partner, the witty writer John Sandilands. He died in 2004 and I thought a cruise might help me over the loss and – perhaps as an outside chance –to find somebody equally exciting. Both my ex-husband and John had been exceptionally chatty, lively men but maybe they were rare exceptions in a world where the majority of older men seem to be completely silent. 

So, was it me, I wondered? Was I somehow putting these men off, making them nervous?

But no. When I looked round I saw it was just the same on every table. The men were sitting there as silently as if they’d had their tongues cut out. Yet their wives and partners were talking all the time – to other women.

When I asked one of the more voluble men, a cruise lecturer, why he thought this was, he said: “Has it ever occurred to you that they might be shy?”

Shy? Yet all these men were, or had been, successful professionals who had enjoyed big careers as doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen.

And shyness with strangers cannot completely account for their silence and dullness. After all, a lot of women are shy too, and yet almost always, they will do their best to improve the shining hour with conversation, questions and stories.

The husbands of many longstanding female friends, men I have known for years, are often not much better. They too have absolutely no animation, wit or liveliness about them. My late father in law was so silent his wife always answered for him. Even if you asked him a direct question, she would reply, not him.

Just recently, I went to stay with a friend in France. One day an English couple were coming to lunch and my friend warned me that the husband never spoke. I thought she must be exaggerating, but no. He did not say one word before, during or after the meal. What a waste of space!

This paper’s late columnist, the decidedly non-dull Keith Waterhouse, was well aware of the problem.  In his book The Theory and Practice of Lunch, recently reissued by Revel Barker Publishing, he writes: “Lunch, as opposed to dinner, is where you can invite a charming lady without her boring husband.” Like Waterhouse, I often wish I could invite just the female half of a couple to lunch or dinner, and leave the husband at home. All-female parties are almost always jolly occasions where everybody is talking and laughing the whole time; throw in a man or two and all the laughter stops. 

But however excruciatingly painful a social occasion might be when Trappist- monk type men are present, at least they are soon over.

Imagine what it must be like to be hooked up for life with a dull man. These days, many older men – single, widowed, divorced – are putting themselves up hopefully on dating sites. There are increasing amounts of such sites aimed at the over-50s, and they are chock-full of really boring-sounding men. The blokes all say they are looking for a slim, attractive, younger woman (naturally), but what do they have to offer in return?

I’ve been looking on one or two sites in some vague hope but I find that usually, the men offer nothing! They sound so tedious that you almost fall asleep reading their profiles. Once they’ve told you they like walking the dog and pottering about in the garden, that’s about it. And although they may allege they have a good (or ‘wicked’) sense of humour, there is never any indication of it in their write-ups about themselves.

What most of these men are after, I suspect, is the nurse and the purse; a woman who will provide financial and ministering angel care in return for this great privilege of having a man in the house. But women looking for a partner are not fooled; you see the same male profiles on these dating sites month after month and often, year after year.

Unless they are stupendously rich, which most of them are not, they simply haven’t got a chance.

You never see lively interesting older men on the site for the simple reason that they don’t have to put themselves up for grabs.  Such men are so rare that they are snapped up instantly. There are few things as enjoyable as a witty, entertaining male companion, whether for lunch or for life, but where do we find them? Where are they all hiding?

I’d love to find at least an amusing profile on one of the sites but have so far drawn a complete blank.  And there is simply no point to a man who is not amusing; it is their duty to amuse and entertain us.

But it’s not just their lack of conversation, wit and sparkle that’s the problem. Older women nowadays go to a lot of trouble to keep their bodies slim, attractive and healthy, and their minds up to date with all the latest books, films and plays, while the men just let everything go to pot. Most of them never seem to read any books, they never go to the cinema and they are on buckets of pills from a lifetime of unhealthy living and eating.

Yet I don’t remember men being so dull when I was younger. At university and work, it was the men who seemed to call all the shots and the women who remained silent, nodding approvingly. In marriage, it was mainly the men who were the go-getters.

So did something happen to them in late middle age whereby they grew a white beard and a paunch at the same time as taking a vow of eternal silence and withdrawing from active participation in the human race? Often, the only thing an older man can think of to make himself seem cool is to tie his two remaining strands of hair back in a ponytail. But please, chaps, don’t. It puts us off you even more.

Two of my sixty-something male friends offered an explanation of the silent older man syndrome. It sets in, they said, because so many men are quite simply, burned out by the time they reach sixty or so. They’ve often spent a lifetime at work taking orders, toeing the line and they have never developed the social support systems which sustain women, nor have they any idea how to conduct themselves in company.  They feel tired, old, lonely and redundant, just as women of the same age are, finally, coming into their own.

Another older man asked: “What is there to talk about, anyway?” What indeed? Only books, films, current affairs, thoughts, emotions, feelings …

Because their husbands have become so dull, ever more older women are deciding to divorce them. They simply cannot stand the prospect of having this uncommunicative appendage in their lives any longer.  One woman I know divorced her 60-year old husband because she said he had become an embarrassment to her.

Unless they buck their ideas up and start joining in, I can foresee a time when there will be swathes of ditched older men living alone in bedsitters doing crosswords while women of the same age are off having the time of their lives. 

Already, the sheer numbers of desperate older men vainly trying to find something interesting to say about themselves on dating sites is an indication of this coming trend.



Daily Telegraph - October 2010