At the schools I attended as a child there was a sliding scale of being "hard".
That tiresome machismo that boys adopt after a certain age, became apparent to me when I was about 9. At my first Primary school there was no real posing or acting like a caricature of your favourite superhero. You simply did your thing and had your friends and just got on with it. We had our "top dogs" but they held that position through popularity amongst their peers. There was no need to pretend, as our playtimes were full of "pretend" anyway. Grease, Saturday Night Fever and the irritating TV show Happy Days were stupendously popular when I was a kid. One lunchtime the two most popular boys in my form, Ryan Perry and Jason Fitzmaurice** got the rest of us together and gave themselves and us nicknames before we "got on our scrambling motorbikes". Jason was the name giver and pointed to himself and went "Fonze" then to Ryan and went "Grease". These were the top names you could possibly have in an era of Richie Cunningham and Greased Lightning***. Ryan acknowledged the given name with a smile and a nod, and Jason then named the rest of us.
I got to be "Spud".
We then pretended to be holding handlebars and ran up and down the playground making motorbike noises. This incident was notable for two reasons. One, it was the only time I ever remember seeing all the boys in my class play a game together without teachers organising it. Two, I left as I thought it was boring and a few minutes later tried to come back but was told I couldn't. The club was closed to Spud now he'd resigned.
When I got to what was then called class M1 (fuck knows what it is now. That stood for Middle 1, so I was 8 going on 9) I noticed that the 11 year olds were acting different to how we'd acted for so long. Now we were in the M section of school we got to use a different playground. One for older kids who got to wear their own clothes instead of uniform (if they wanted to, although the Headmistress was against it). A certain cockiness, surliness and adoption of superfluous gestures was take up by them. Something that I picked up on very quickly was that the older kids didn't smile a lot. They were, it transpired, trying to look cool or "hard".
A catch phrase of the time was to say "Who let you out?" if someone did something stupid or you just wanted to curtail an argument by putting them down. I once said this to a kid in my class who was friends with a surly, older boy who snapped back "I did, because he didn't belong in there."
Again, my over analytical brain was thinking that the original line about being "let out" was only an insult and not meant to be taken literally. That follow up didn't make sense.
Basically, being older meant you had to be, or at least pretend to be "hard."
At Secondary school the regime was entrenched. Boys had to either be able to fight or put on a persona of "hardness" in order to avoid getting picked on or bullied. If you came across as "hard" then you could call everyone's bluff until one of the genuinely hard kids offered you out.
A revolting little creep in the remedial class of my year was named John Sears. He looked like a cross between Blaster out of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Beaker out the Muppets Show. He was constantly mouthing off about "no one's got the guts to do the things I do" and trying to start fights with kids up to about 4 years younger than himself. I wasn't a fighter at school but fondly recall the time he started something and I dragged him to the floor. A teacher broke it up and got us to face each other while he asked me exactly what John had done ****. John was glaring at me and silently mouthing threats so I went:
"Well Sir, first of all he did this!"...and punched John in the face.
As Sears stood there in mute shock I then added "And then he did this!" and booted him in the shin.
As John lunged for me the teacher restrained him and in his own deluded way said "No John! Lance is only showing me."
Sears wasn't "hard" and neither was I. A lot of kids weren't hard or "hard" either. However they were better at pretending than I was. One sack of dogshit called David Hall was always picking on weaker kids, while simultaneously pissing himself with fear if a bigger lad came near him. He once kept offering me outside at lunchtime while digging me with his fist and saying in mock surprise "What's wrong? You're hard aren't you?" as I attempted to ignore his goading.
A septic little cunt in my class called Simon Taylor would get bullied and teased by those higher up the scale of hardness...and then come and take it out on me, even though I hadn't done anything to him. Reason? He needed to look "hard" when he wasn't and pounding my face with his fists would, in his diseased mind, get him kudos with the clan of cretins he wished to be accepted by.
So...ingrained in me and a lot of little boys as they grew up was that you had to be hard or, failing that, pretend your arse off in order to look like it.
Boys don't cry (a friend of my father once said how great it was when I pointed out that I hadn't cried in over a year), boys don't show too much emotion, boys can fight, boys like football, etc, etc.
Boys had to put on a facade of utter hardness and invulnerability to emotions that only puffs, fairies and girls revelled in.
Realising this wasn't in itself a revelation. What is eye opening however is just how much I carried this attitude with me into my adult life
The swagger when I walk. The poker face when I enter a crowded pub. The cold face when I'm stuck in traffic (countered by the "rage face" when I feel like having a go).
Despite my fondness of animals and children that I don't attempt to hide I, like many men, believe I have to look "hard" even now. Old habits die hard, especially when they are so ingrained in us that we don't even know we're doing them. All that swagger and false bravado was nothing more than an attempt to put on a face that I fundamentally thought I had to.
Recently I've been told that the best way to defuse aggression is to avoid it. So, if you can walk away from a fight, then do it. If you are in a road rage incident then drive away or just don't lose your cool in the first place. About 6 months ago a rude Scottish guy chased me up the street in his 4x4 because I'd stuck my finger up at him in traffic. I looked in the rearview mirror to find him gesturing furiously for me to pull over and get out. So I did.
Not to be "hard" but because I was genuinely pissed off and angry. This burst his bubble and he simply sat in his car moaning about my lack of road etiquette but making no attempt to get out and confront me...like he'd been telling me he wanted to do.
He felt he had to look "hard"...along with millions of other guys.
The breakthrough in self perception has basically made me see that I don't have to hide my emotions or try and be tougher than I really am.
If you're a man, just think of the times when you've cried and felt ashamed for doing it. The only acceptable occasions for a blub are a close relative's funeral; at your children's birth or when watching footage of old men attending Armistice day on television. Society sets rules on just how much emotion we can feel as men, and tells us we have to fake as much as we're lacking.
To pretend is relatively easy. To be yourself is what's truly "hard".
** We didn't hang out with girls unless forced to...girls were smelly and stupid and into sissy things like skipping.
*** Which made us giggle as it had the words "shit" and "tit" in it...and was played on the radio a lot. The line "all the chicks 'll cream" didn't make sense until the advent of puberty.
**** Back then, no bullying, just "fighting" as the teachers were lazy bastards who just blamed both parties for the sake of an easy life.