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I often hear wives bemoan the fact that they can't get their husbands to talk to them. They want to know what it would take to hear their men "really open up."
Personally, I think most wives get far more satisfaction from dissing their spouse's communications skills than they could ever derive from hearing what their guys actually have to say. But if you insist on knowing, I will let you in on one of our manly little secrets.
There's one situation where men truly and consistently talk a lot. And that's when they're naked, hanging around in the locker room.
Ever since I was a teenager and got my first chance to sit in a community center's steam room, I've been aware of how differently men speak to one another when they're dressed only in towels. Maybe nudity humbles us, because there's no hiding how far we've strayed from Michelangelo's David-like perfection, and at the same time it frees us. But no matter the reason, the chatter in the locker room has a different quality from the conversations men have, say, when they drink together. There's a terry-cloth truth about these discussions that you just can't get anywhere else.
When I tell my wife, Diane, about the Chest Hair Dialogues, she's always fascinated and a little jealous. She says whenever she's in women's locker rooms, nobody says much: It's hushed and almost clinical.
Diane has also figured out that many of the discussions I have in the locker room are the mundane chats she routinely fails to engage me in at home. She thinks I'm cheating on her conversationally, yakking about politics, business, world affairs, even the weather with naked guys -- some of whom I barely know -- topics I almost never talk about with her, especially as we get past 9 p.m., when my head begins the "TV nod" like one of those drinking-bird toys.
I also suspect Diane finds it hard to believe I could be that comfortable sitting around naked with anyone -- because she knows I'm not that way around her. I'm the kind of guy who puts his clothes back on immediately after sex, and I haven't taken my shirt off at the beach in, like, 30 years. I don't know why I'm that way (maybe I need a body-image therapist) any more than I understand how I somehow have grown unselfconscious enough in the locker room that I don't even bother putting a towel around my waist.
Over the years I've also become something of a student of the sociology of men talking to one another naked. There are several different areas where guys converse, each with its own unwritten rules. The main stage is the locker and bench zone, where unrobed conversations take place within earshot of anyone who happens to be nearby. There's a lot of trash talk and one-upsmanship, more about sports than anything else -- although, interestingly, it's rarely about the sports that the guys just played. It's usually about pro sports that they recently watched (or have an opinion on even if they didn't).
Besides the sports talk, you also hear occasional outbursts of what I call competitive praise. Two guys, generally 50-plus, will stand there hurtling compliments at each other -- "you look great," "no, no, you look great" -- until one has managed to aggressively out-flatter the other. The fact that they're buck naked and demonstrably do not look great just makes it all the more entertaining.
Then there are the whisperers. Although I understand wanting to create a little privacy in this nakedly public setting, their whispering becomes so conspicuous that everyone immediately wonders what they're plotting. And sometimes the wondering is justified. Just a couple of weeks ago a guy with a locker near mine was indicted.
I especially distrust the whisperers because there are so many other places in the locker room where you can talk more privately. If you and your friends manage to get the steam room or the sauna to yourselves, either is a great place to talk -- until an interloper arrives. Then the situation usually becomes too awkward for anyone to say anything.
My favorite place is the whirlpool, which bubbles loudly enough that it serves as a watery cone of silence. Our whirlpool is rectangular, so groups of three or four can huddle at either end and, as long as no strangers wander into your whirling space, it feels pretty private. Whirlpool time can be sacred: In our regular basketball group it's not uncommon for guys who are hurt and can't play to show up just for the whirlpool chatter.
I brought up my theory of naked-male communication in the whirlpool recently. One of my basketball buddies immediately said, "Bulls--. Men don't talk to each other any differently when they're naked. In fact, they never talk to each other at all. They only talk at each other."
I tried to get him to shut up long enough for him to admit there was some truth to that (for both men and women), but he was too busy pontificating on why his single social life caused him to miss a recent morning game. "The only thing I want to see that early," he said, "is coffee, the paper, and tits."
"I so want to be you," shot back one of the married guys.
In all fairness I've heard naked guys say wonderfully moving things about their wives and families -- things they'd probably never say to their wives and families. One of the most amazing moments I ever saw was the outpouring of support for one of our favorite yakkers, a 50-year-old guy who suffered a stroke after playing the early-morning full-court game. People he barely knew visited him in the hospital, and one club regular -- a former pharmaceutical executive who seems to have actually retired to the locker room (he's always there, and nobody has seen him get dressed in almost a year) -- started a betoweled fund-raising drive. We paid the injured guy's gym membership for the next few years as he rehabs.
Every once in a while, moving confessions come out in unpredictable ways.
Recently a guy a few lockers down from mine, clad only in socks, asked me very casually what my plans were for the evening. I told him my wife was out of town for a few days, visiting her parents.
"So you're a bachelor," he said. And I thought I knew where this was headed. But actually, I was wrong.
"Well, don't do anything stupid while she's away," he implored. "It's not worth it. Believe me, I know."
I found this moment so unexpected and poignant that, afterward, when I called Diane, I temporarily suspended the court-recognized right of naked-guy privilege and shared the exchange with her.
"It sounds like you guys have your own version of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," she said.
I told her I think of it more as the Yada-Yada Brotherhood. And I'm proud to be a member.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, April 2006.