On our podcast ‘Tales That Tethr’, tethr Founder & CEO Matt Zerker interviews entrepreneurs, experts, thought leaders, and regular people about what is means to be a man, the challenges that modern men face, and how to overcome challenges and live life in a more connected and authentic way.
Cleo Stiller is a Peabody Award and Emmy Award-nominated journalist, speaker and television host on a mission to inspire positive social action around the world — and now the author of the book Modern Manhood: Conversations About the Complicated World of Being a Good Man Today. Last year, we featured Modern Manhood on our list of mindset-changing books. So we were very excited to finally haveCleo join Matt for a #tethtalks in the New Year. Below, we've gathered Cleo's answer to some of our burning questions.
What made you want to write this book?
The first question I always get asked or an iteration of that is: ‘why is a woman writing a book called modern manhood?'
I was hosting a show for Univision for many years about health and relationships. When #MeToo first happened, I had men writing into me who watched the show saying, ‘are you going to do a season on this because I have so much to say about what's happening right now and I'm kind of afraid to say anything, BUT…’ and then they would have a question about how everything that's been going on was impacting their lives personally.
I knew on the other side of the aisle, women were having, and survivors were having conversations about this and they were saying, ‘men don't care. I haven't heard from any men.’ And I knew they did. So Modern Manhood is the amalgamation of reporting this out.
What are we doing to do about this? What are men saying privately? Let's come together and just air it all out. Because I don't know about you but I don't want to be having the same conversation in a decade you know? This book is really, the thoughts, feelings, confessions, concerns of men all over the country when it comes to really intimate aspects of our lives. Then of course infused with research from historians, anthropologists, neurologists, to see how we as a society can come together and be better.
What do women need right now from the men in their lives in order to feel safe and heard in this conversation?
It's very hard to give maximalist advice to a question like that. There's so much nuance with everything because what my experience is as a woman is very different from other women, so we all need very different things. You kind of have to strap in if you're a guy and you're wanting to participate in this conversation: you're going to fuck up. Okay? So, strap in, it's going to be uncomfortable. That is okay and it's unavoidable.
At first when #MeToo started and people were sharing stories, there was this kind of shock. That ‘oh shit, is it really that bad?’ And then ‘oh good, I’m glad you’re sharing your story.’ That quickly became, ‘okay enough, we’ve heard enough about it. What are we going to do about it because I don’t want to hear any more shit.’
I think a little bit more of an understanding that these stories have been kept so tightly by survivors and women for so long that many feel that they’ve only been given a glimmer of an opportunity to express their experiences and so there’s some frustration around feeling like, ‘okay no hurry on and let’s move on. So allowing a little bit more space would be lovely.
If you're a guy and you're interacting with a woman in a conversation about this, remember that she's probably not talking about you specifically. I'll give a personal example: I worked at Univision, prior to that I worked at Bloomberg, prior to that I worked at an investment firm. Those have been my three jobs since undergrad and at each one, I list a story.
The investment firm was a very small boutique firm but is the largest healthcare-focused firm in the world. So small company, lots of power, always rife for some trouble. An example is that the CEO kept breast implants on his desk. We were early investors in these breast implants, so you could say, ‘oh we invest in this product.’ But it was just very clear, he had them on his desk so that he could talk about breasts whenever he wanted to. When I interviewed for the job there, he was like ‘do you know the difference between these?’ And I was like ‘... the breast implants? Well one is saline.’ And he was like, ‘do you have a personal preference?’ So anyway, within the first interview round we're talking about breast implants. This is just how my job started. You could say well why would you take that job? It was an incredible opportunity. And this happens all the time.
At Bloomberg, I shot stories on a camera that was on a very secluded wing in the office, right after Charlie Roads. Everyone told me, you really need to try and get that shift moved because Charlie. Everyone knew about Charlie. I couldn't get that shift moved and I also felt like it's a really great opportunity that I could get to talk to Charlie Roads every week. But there was a whisper network right.
Then at Univision, one of the highest ranking EP's at our company messaged me one night that he was flying into New York and did I want to dicuss this story? He asked me to meet him at his hotel bar. In journalism, like so many industries, most of the business doesn't happen in the office. It happens at coffee dates, happens at drinks, if you can get a source, take them out for dinner, get great stories, this is how business is conducted. So I met the EP at the hotel bar and we discussed my first international assignment. The opportunity was just incredible. I was very excited — and then he kissed me and invited me up to his room at the hotel. I was shocked. I left immediately and said no. I waited a couple days for things to cool down and then I emailed him as if nothing had happened. I never heard back from him. I sent a couple follow up emails. Never got that assignment, never got that opportunity.
These are just really minor stories. But when I told my partner, he poked holes in all of them. Why would I go to the hotel? Why would I take a job where the CEO was talking about breast implants? It made it really clear to me that he didn't want my story to be okay, he didn't want it to have happened. He wanted to explain why it happened because of my behaviour rather than just saying that's not right. The only reason I could think of is because there's part of him that felt personally responsible for it. Even though it obviously had nothing to do with him.
What is the impact that #MeToo has had on the collective male psyche and how can we start to begin unraveling this and actually start to mend fences?
I would say that there's a real silver lining to the impact which is that people, men, who were previously oblivious or didn't care, now their eyes are much more open. For better or for worse, they didn't realize that this was going on. They're appalled and want to help make it better so that this doesn't happen and again. A huge parallel to BLM. I think it's largely positive, of course there's been some backlash. But to harken back to our previous question it's not just one conversation, right? You might spend the first conversation hearing a lot of stories and then your second conversation might be thinking more about how you were implicated, what could you have done better, what can you do better going forward? Then maybe the third conversation is how you haven’t felt seen or heard.
When I started interviewing men, having primarily done women’s health for most of my career, I can say that one thing that surprised me more than anything else that I reported in the book was how collectively men felt unheard, unappreciated. They felt like the weight of the world was on their shoulders and they couldn't talk about it. It’s stifling.
I didn't know that and I dont think a lot of women know that. I also don't think that men know that other men feel that too. Collectively understanding that we're all suffering a silent battle is very... of course disheartening but there's huge opportunity there.
How do I call out a friend’s inappropriate behaviour without losing him?
I would not have written this [book] if men didn't ask me this question over and over again. They were basically like ‘I've got a friend, we've all got this friend, says some racist, sexist stuff. We used to just laugh it off and just kind of ignore him but now with everything going on, it doesn't feel like that's okay anymore. How do I call out my friend without losing him? Or having him turn it around on me and be like what are you perfect?
The real question is well why do guys talk like that, why do guys do “locker room” talk? When I interviewed men, they were like listen I'm not proud of locker room talk but don't take it from me, because that's what I've got. I can't just roll into a conversation with a guy, even if he's my best friend, and be like, I'm really feeling down and have all of these emotional reflections that women do quite easily. Guys can't do that.
Why? Are men not wired to talk about their emotions? What's that about? Niobe Way is a researcher who’s been studying male adolescents for 30 years. She told me about this social experiment she runs. When girls and boys are playground age, they actually form friendships the same exact way. they're hugging their friends, they are kissing their friends, they're whispering in their friends' ear, telling them everything, all their secrets. Then around that age, young boys start becoming policed by their teachers, their siblings, their parents. Don't talk to your friend like that, that's a girl thing. Don't hug your friend like that, that's what girls do. Don't whisper to your friend girls do that. Boys get on the field, play this game. There's nothing wrong with sports, but you need both.
What ends up happening is that girls, from an early age are actually encouraged to talk about their feelings, to share their feelings, to know what they're feeling, to have the full spectrum of emotion — except for anger because that's a man thing — and boys don't get to do that.
What we know is that verbalization is such an important process in human cognition. If you don’t talk about your feelings for a week, fine. For twenty years? You forget you have those feelings. So for women this will sound familiar: have you ever been in a fight with your male partner and you look at him and you're like... just tell me what you're feeling. And dudes you're like omg I've totally been there. You're like a deer caught in headlights, like back off, I don't know what the fuck I'm feeling, back off. When was the last time anyone asked me how I was feeling? Oh I was three? Okay.
I don't do gender maximalist or gender essentialism, I don't really believe in that but women and men do not know that they are socialized so fundamentally differently. Then we get to the same age group and you're in a relationship with someone or your boss and you do not understand how they are communicating. We need this critical information.
How is dating different after #MeToo? And should men still pay for the first date?
This one is complicated. The overall feeling about dating was, ‘I feel like everything I was taught to do is now considered creepy, or worse.’ Within that the question of am I supposed to pay or not pay came up almost immediately. This is shocking to me that in 2021 we are still having this conversation. The answer to that question actually extrapolates the whole point of the book.
Half the guys I heard from would say this: I'll go on one date, with one woman, and offer to pay, because that's how I was raised. She'll be like, fuck off I can pay for myself and be totally offended that I have offered to pay. So then I go on a date with the next woman and I don't offer to pay because I'm not an idiot and I learned from the first one. Then she's offended. She thinks I'm a cheapskate or not a good guy.
Then there was some portion of guys who were like, I just think it's bullshit that I would pay because I do believe in women's equality and I believe in it across the board, so if we're doing this equality thing how come I'm still paying for dates?
So then I start talking to the women. Do you like the guy to pay for a date? Half the women said yes and I'd be like okay, why? They didn’t really know. I'm like, it’s interesting because your other views about gender norms are very progressive and this ones very traditional. They're like, you're right I don't know, it's confusing. I'm like oh okay, so you're confused... Do you ever say to the guy you're on a date with like 'I love to be treated' and they're like no why would I say that? I'm like well how is he supposed to know?
So everyone is confused and no one is talking about it. It's a complete mess. Here's the advice:
The first question is: do you want to pay for the date? The Me Too movement I know has left men feeling really disempowered, like they don't know what to do. A great place to start is, what do you want to do?
A lot of men if you ask them will say, I want to pay for the date because that's how I was raised. I actually think that's a really lovely impulse. What I recommend is, once you get clear on whether you want to pay for the date or not, own that. The lesson here is that there's so many behaviours that we have as men and women that we were taught to do but we never thought about why or if we even wanted to do it.
So then you go on the date and you tell the woman, listen, I would love to treat you tonight because that's how I was raised and it feels really good for me to treat the partners I'm with, how does that sound? I think you are really hard pressed to find a woman who's not going to love that. If you do go on a date with a woman who's like, you're a caveman, no way. News flash, you are not going to be a good fit with that woman.
If you think about it like do I want to pay for the date? And you decide no, not really, then you don't have to. I talked to one dude who was really interesting. That's the thing, once you get clear on what you wanna do, then say what you're doing, you are going to connect with people so much quicker. It starts helping you verbalize your feelings and then you're weeding out people you're not going to be a good match for. Communicating is so critical because there are so many assumptions we're all making and then by not communicating it, newsflash we're disconnected and isolated and in our own worlds. That leads to frustration, not feeling seen, not feeling heard, not feeling appreciated.
What is the most important takeaway from Modern Manhood that men should know?
It’s so important to get clear on why you’re doing it because, and this will happen, you’ll screw up. Someone is going to call you out and then your initial instinct is probably going to be self-protective: “Fuck this shit, this is why I shouldn’t have gotten involved. I’m not saying fuck all anymore.”
Don’t do that. We are all going to mess up. But movement on this front is so important. You don’t want to have a kid or be an uncle to a kid coming up in the next 10, 15, or 20 years and have them still stuck in the same places we are. You want your kid to get an assignment from the top producer at a network and not have to worry that if they don’t kiss them that they’re not going to get the assignment — or worse.
So I really say, strapping in for the discomfort is so necessary. This isn’t fun, but it’s so important.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.