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Perhaps the most common term for a man who is not traditionally masculine is “sensitive.” The term is sometimes spelled out further so that such men are called SNAGs, “sensitive new age guys.” But what is it to be “sensitive”? And is it a good or a bad thing?

It seems to me that the term “sensitivity,” as popularly used, implies at least two different concepts. They are related; in both cases, if one is asked “what is one sensitive to?”, the answer would likely be: emotion. But they are not the same; for one is generally good, the other generally bad.

Sensitivity in the good sense, it seems to me, involves being aware of emotion, being able to sense it. One can witness that slight tremble in a lower lip and know that it means unhappiness, see that those slightly narrowed eyes indicate disapproval, recognize that that particular turn of phrase indicates annoyance. This sort of sensitivity strikes me as a valuable skill. It allows one to be attentive to others, know the needs that they often fear expressing. One can be similarly sensitive to one’s own emotions – be attuned to them, aware of them as they arise. I think that something like this sort of sensitivity to oneself is expressed in the Buddhist virtue of mindfulness (smṛti), awareness of the currents of one’s thoughts and feelings. Such awareness can mean the difference between repressing and reducing anger, or other negative emotions – between leaving anger untouched in a way that leads to passive aggression, and dealing with it actively and openly in a way that actively minimizes it.

But the term “sensitivity” also typically implies something else. A “sensitive guy” is often easily affected by another’s emotion, takes it personally. This is, I would admit, a flaw of mine; I don’t react particularly well to others’ disapproval. And “sensitivity” in this second sense can be exacerbated by sensitivity in the first sense – for it’s much easier to react negatively to disapproval when you’re acutely aware that that disapproval is happening. This is why I find it very easy to get annoyed by subtle changes in tone of voice when they come from my wife or a close friend – when those same changes from a stranger would not affect me. It’s a source for the kinds of arguments within married couples that seem so bewildering to those outside the relationship (“Don’t give me that look! You always do this!”)

A traditionally masculine man is likely sensitive in neither of these ways. The second makes him easier to get along with because less easily offended; the first is a source of frustration to those who try to send him subtle signals. A nice person, on the other hand, is likely sensitive in both ways – considerate of emotion but solicitous of approval.

A significant part of classical Buddhism’s appeal to me is that it seems to get this distinction. Mindfulness toward emotion, at least one’s own, is a key Buddhist virtue; but saukumārya, “softness” or “fragility,” is disdained. Śāntideva insists that being soft in the face of suffering only allows that suffering to increase.

The larger passage in which Śāntideva’s claim appairs, within the Bodhicaryāvatāra chapter on patient endurance, is rhetorically striking: “A wise one should not disturb purity of mind even in suffering, for [the wise one is in] combat with the mental afflictions, and pain is easily obtained in war.” One might not expect military metaphors from an advocate of non-harming. But for Śāntideva our mental afflictions (kleśas) are so destructive that we must stamp them out, fight a battle against them in a way we would never do against a sentient being.

The metaphor takes me back to my earlier discussion of niceness (the SNAG looks almost identical to the nice guy). André Comte-Sponville addresses the importance of gentleness as a virtue, beginning his discussion thus: “Gentleness is a feminine virtue. That is why it is particularly pleasing in men.” And he urges us to “think of trains packed with soldiers” as an example of the ugly, and traditionally masculine, world that follows from a lack of gentleness. Now Śāntideva does not wish us to be gentle toward the mental afflictions, rather to root them out and fight them, be tough against them. We must not act like sensitive guys toward our craving and ignorance and even anger. But to fight them we must nevertheless be sensitive to their existence.

There is a fine line between gentleness and niceness; the latter too easily becomes a vice. Similarly, there is a fine line between the two concepts of sensitivity: In subtly discerning others’ emotions, one runs a risk of being too easily affected by those subtleties. It is in being affected by them that we most easily notice them. But to notice others’ subtle emotional shifts while remaining undisturbed by them – this is an ideal worth striving for.