Brendan Stermer grew up in rural Minnesota. So when he studied abroad in South Korea during college, he found his world turned upside down.
A student at the University of Minnesota in Morris, Stermer spent a year learning about Confucian philosophy in South Korea. Then he came home and got a job at a local produce warehouse.
The two worlds couldn't have been more different, and neither could the people inhabiting them.
The men in Stermer's town and his coworkers drove pickup trucks. They lifted weights. They owned guns.
His male friends in South Korea had been sentimental and open about their feelings. They encouraged him to spruce up his wardrobe and buy expensive facial moisturizers.
As a 21-year-old guy just coming into his own, Stermer felt more than a little confused about what "being a man" really meant. So he decided to ask a few of the men he knew.
Armed with his iPhone, Stermer set out to interview the men who inhabited his rural stomping grounds about what being a man means to them.
"One defining characteristic of manhood in rural Minnesota is that people don't like to talk about themselves," he said. "I definitely got turned down a lot."
But slowly, Stermer was able to gather a motley crew of guys who were willing to open up on camera for the project, which would be turned into a five-episode web series for a local public television station.
Cops, cowboys, college students, you name it. The questions were simple and broad. And though many of the volunteers were a little reluctant once the camera started rolling, they eventually warmed up.
Stermer said it's hard to draw many conclusions from his survey since the sample size was so small, but he learned a few important things nonetheless:
1. There was a lot of confusion and disagreement on the "role" of men in a changing society.
The question that drew the widest range of responses from the men was: "What is the role of men in family and community life?"
Some felt strongly that men should be leaders, breadwinners, and providers. Others didn't think there was (or should be) any difference between how men and women were expected to behave.
Stermer said this debate continued during a public screening of his series of interviews.
"Some people were saying, 'Oh, that gives me so much hope that we've finally moved beyond this gender binary,'" Stermer said. "Which was contrasted by other people saying, 'That really causes me to feel grief because I feel like we're forgetting about the reality of the body.'"
He said he personally believes in moving beyond rigid and antiquated ideas about gender, but by listening to the different perspectives of those in his community, he at least has come to understand both points of view a bit more.
2. He noticed a lot of men in America are somewhat emotionally isolated.
In one of the episodes, Stermer asks the men, "Is there anything you don't talk to your male friends about?" The responses were striking.
One man said, "I don't share a whole lot of my private life or anything."
"Some of the softer side of the things that we do on the job," one of the police officers responded, "[like] breaking down in tears after you're at an accident scene involving minor children, infants."
It's no surprise that many men have trouble opening up, but Stermer says he was definitely affected by talking to so many men who didn't feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings with each other.
"I hope that we make space for emotional vulnerability and weakness in our perception of masculinity in our country," Stermer said. "And that more men will rediscover experiences like passion and grief and interdependence not as feminine experiences, but as fundamentally human."
3. Talking about themselves and about men's issues seemed to bring the men closer together.
It wasn't all heavy debate on gender roles and repressed feelings. In one of the more lighthearted episodes, the men share something about themselves that others might find "unmanly."
One guy joked about how he can't grow a beard. Two of the older men shared a laugh over their shared distaste for beer.
"Every group that I interviewed had a really good time," Stermer said. "I think they came out of the experience feeling closer to each other."
When all was said and done, Stermer wound up even more confused about what makes someone a man.
But that's OK, he said. In fact, maybe that's the whole point.
Stermer's goal was not to come away with clear answers, but to reflect on his own views of masculinity and to encourage others to do the same. In the end, he was encouraged to find so many different, flexible ideas of what manliness is all about.
"I think I have a more nuanced understanding of my identity as a man now," he said. "But it's definitely a topic I have a lot more questions about and I want to continue to explore."
Check out the first episode of Stermer's series, "Manhood in Rural America," or check out all the interviews online at Pioneer Public Television.