At lunch this week, my friend shoved her phone across the table at me. She had just received a text from a male friend that read: “Or, that’s cool, don’t respond.” I looked at her for context, confused. “He texted me four times already today,” she said, exasperated. “Just ‘hey.’ Three unanswered ‘hey’ texts.”
“Are you mad at him?” I asked, confused.
She sighed. “No, I’m not mad. And it’s not a romantic thing — we’re not like that. I’m just busy!” She shrugged, deflated. “What am I supposed to do with ‘hey’? It’s like he texts me expecting me to entertain him, to hop to it whenever he’s feeling down.” And then — “I’m tired of these Yale soft-boys.”
I nodded, and I’d bet good money that every woman reading this article has been upset with a similar Yale soft-boy for very similar reasons. The term “soft-boy” has been floating around the feminist corner of the internet for a while, but this is the first time I encountered it. For a loose definition, the “soft-boy” is not necessarily a romantic interest, but rather a boy who exhibits his sensitivity as a social tool, transforming his awkward emotionality into a likeable characteristic.
Still confused? Let me paint a picture for you. The soft-boy doesn’t care about body hair on his woman partners, but wants to make sure that everyone knows that he’s very chill about it. It’s the boy who speaks pretty openly about going to see a therapist, but then speaks pretty openly about his friend going to see a therapist, too, and she didn’t OK that as public knowledge. It’s the boy who jokes about his own fragile masculinity, but then gets really testy about the fact that he was picked last for the high school badminton tournament. Think messenger bag. Think Michael Cera. Think an indulgent (and spurious) use of the word “problematic.” He wants you to know how many feelings he has.
Although he’s not overtly a keg-standing, never-crying, hard-grilling misogynist, the Yale soft-boy is a different presentation of an equally pernicious masculinity because he slips under the radar. Appearing emotionally intelligent excuses him from criticism because he disguises his emotional neediness as the hard-earned vulnerability of a close friendship. The soft-boy is a weight, opening up to lure caring women to his side. If it sounds like I’m using predatory language to describe these vultures of fourth-wave feminism, good read. I am. Soft-boys of Yale are a social epidemic, invisibly soliciting unreciprocated emotional labor from their woman friends.
I’m not writing to condemn emotionally intimate heterosexual friendships; I’m writing to dispel the myth that sharing sadness equates to friendship at all. We are there for our true friends when they are sad because we are there with them when they are delighted. And they are there for us for the same reason.
But the soft-boy is not a “friend” to the web of women he has spun to entertain him when he is lonely, coax him through break-ups when he is sad and help him out when he is feeling low. Instead, he’s bartered openness for a time commitment, demanding an inordinate amount of this emotional buttressing from his women friends. And he doesn’t see why that’s a problem — he thinks he’s entitled to the time his women friends spend caring for his emotional well-being, and notices neither the toll it takes on them nor the fact that he rarely reciprocates the devotion. It’s a corruption of an empathy that should be freely given, rather than demanded. And frankly, it’s exhausting.
I’m not writing in order to give a comedic character sketch of a J Crew model reject. Rather, I’m writing because it took me — and a lot of my friends — a long time to see that our soft-boy interlocutors were not our friends, and that the relationships were a lot more harmful than helpful. Friendships founded on arbitrary exchanges of angst are not friendships. And so if you’re a woman in the well-moisturized clutches of soft-boy, assess what that relationship is actually bringing to you. And if you’re a man whose friendships with women hinge primarily on exchanging stories about your problems, maybe assess what you’re expecting of the women in your life.
Emotional intimacy should be earned through a slow build of trust and mutual support, not punted to the nearest compassionate woman ready to listen. Be soft, definitely. Have friends of all genders, absolutely. But never, never be a soft-boy.
Amelia Nierenberg is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .