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At This Usapang Lalaki, Conversations are Always Civilized

Face-to-face conversations encourage a respectful exchange of opinions and ideas.
IMAGE PAUL JOHN CAÑA
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It’s a Saturday night at The Other Room along Malingap Street, just off Maginhawa, in Quezon City. The co-working space-slash-vinyl shop-slash-café is filled with about 30 twentysomethings. Some of them are chatting with each other standing up. Others are seated fiddling with their phones. 

Suddenly, a diminutive young woman cups one hand to her mouth and bellows, attempting to catch everybody’s attention. This edition of Usapang Lalaki is about to begin and could everyone please take their seats, she says.

We’ve all heard that phrase: usapang lalaki, literally a talk amongst men. But colloquially, it could mean anything from straight talk to a gentleman’s agreement. Always, the presence of the word lalaki, or man, suggests that women should be kept out of the conversation.

Not this version, though. Usapang Lalaki in this case, is, according to the flyer, “a series of face-to-face conversations that aims to create a safe space not only for women and the LGBT+ community to be heard, but also for men to learn without judgment.”

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Disgruntled Young People

The movement was born out of a community online called Disgruntled Young People or DYP, which, as the name suggests, is composed of young men and women dissatisfied with current socio-political conditions and are determined to do something about it. 

“It was really a group that wanted to tackle different issues, especially women’s issues, but involving men,” says Adrienne “Ien” Onday, one of the convenors of both DYP and UL. She’s also the woman who called the gathering to order. “Eventually we moved the conversation offline and called it Usapang Lalaki.”

Onday and her fellow organizers are aware of the negative connotations behind Usapang Lalaki, but says they want to shun so-called “locker room talk” and turn the concept on his head. Essentially, Usapang Lalaki is an opportunity to engage men on a variety of pressing issues in person, face-to-face.

And the in person and face-to-face is important. Lord knows how online conversations can so easily devolve into either echo chambers that do nothing but reinforce deeply held beliefs, or a digital free-for-all shouting match between faceless, hate-filled trolls hurling insults against one another.

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Onday says they were inspired by Deeyah Khan, a woman and Muslim filmmaker, who sat down and faced people like neo-Nazis and jihadists.

“She said that hate cannot exist face-to-face,” Onday reasons. “You can’t openly hate on someone if they’re right in front of you.”

And so one of the most important rules for those participating in UL is to keep the space safe and respect the views and opinions of everybody in it. All the participants are there willingly, either invited by friends who are already part of UL and DYP, or who saw a post about it on social media.

Emotional Vulnerability 

The first activity is a quick icebreaker, where everyone is broken down into smaller groups according to things like zodiac signs, birthday month, or favorite Power Ranger color. Each group is then asked to quickly share answers to questions like, “When was the last time you said a platonic ‘I love you’ to a close friend of the same sex,” or “When did you last experience an intense emotional episode?” Immediately you’re forced to open up to complete strangers, although organizers are quick to remind people that they aren’t required to answer the questions if they felt the least bit uncomfortable. 

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Afterwards it was time for the main event. UL has had five previous editions since it began in February this year. Topics discussed include “Me Myself and Us: On Self-care and Community Care,” “Relaks, it’s Just Pag-Ibig On Romance, Relationships and Gender Roles,” “Sex(ism) and the City: Are you DTF (Down to be a Feminist)?, and “#Cancelledt: Unpacking Call-Out Culture.”

This particular Saturday’s topic is “Do You Even Feel Bro? On Emotional Labor, Vulnerability and Trust.” It sounds heavy and complicated, but the idea is to demystify why men and women seem to have different approaches to processing and expressing their feelings.

There is a good mix of men in the room, and most are game to talk about why it’s generally harder for them to open up about their feelings and why they expect the women in their lives (like their mom, sisters or female friends) to carry other people’s emotional load more than other men. The theory is put forth that being open about one’s emotional vulnerability is tantamount to weakness, and in a society that values strength (or the perception of it), men are expected to be paragons of steely nerves and steadiness. No one—least of all men—wants to be thought of as delicate or vulnerable.

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But this thinking is exactly what UL seeks to demolish. The first step is to recognize that there is a strong gender bias when it comes to emotional vulnerability and to start unlearning what we’ve been taught since we were kids. It’s okay for men to feel, to be more open about their feelings and to express those feelings not just to their female friends, but to their guy friends as well.

“It’s not wrong to ask for help,” someone says.

The whole experience is intriguing, helpful, and even cathartic, as participants not only get to share how they feel and what they think about the topic, but also get to hear disparate ideas and opinions about the same. Best of all, everybody in the group followed the golden rule, which is to be respectful and considerate with everybody else.

“We want to build a better community, multiply the conversation and build more safe spaces where people can talk about important issues in a respectful manner,” Onday says.

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To find out more about Usapang Lalaki and upcoming conversations, like their Facebook page.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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