Too Many Guys; Too Few Men
Of Men and Guys
As I often do with any kind of investigation, I begin by looking at semantic clues, finding key words and phrases and using my trustworthy Oxford English Dictionary, looking into definition, usage, and etymology. The question of, “What is a man?” gave me nothing particularly useful. Here, even the mighty OED is sadly prosaic, the relevant entry saying only:
4. An adult male human being.
a. Contrasted with a woman.
Deciding to back up, I started looking at usage, the words that people now use to describe “normal adult male human beings.” Readers of this site have seen me rail against stupid husbands, imprecision, perpetuators of mediocrity, and the ill-mannered. The common thread I identified through the inspirations for my reflections is an informality that brings with it a low standard of behavior.
Looking for a word that would succinctly capture the meaning I needed turned out not to be too difficult. I used it myself in one of the introductions without giving it any particular thought, and encountered it again when looking over the Sony Pictures Television description of King of Queens:
Doug's friends Deacon Palmer (Victor Williams), Spence Olchin (Patton Oswalt) and cousin Danny Heffernan (Gary Valentine) round out the cast with their “guy” humor and diverse perspectives.
There's that word “guy”—the word that people now use, very often instead of “man.” Let's see what the OED has to say about that.
2. A person of grotesque appearance, esp. with reference to dress; a ‘fright’.
1836 Lett. fr. Madras (1843) 9 The gentlemen are all ‘rigged Tropical’,..grisly Guys some of them turn out! 1861 HUGHES Tom Brown at Oxf. xxvi. (1889) 246 He was such an old guy in his dress. 1880 Daily Tel. 15 Oct., We have far too many sculptured ‘Guys’ in the metropolis. 1893 VIZETELLY Glances back I. ii. 33 Little boys..were dressed up to look the greatest of guys.
Well, this is promising; maybe we're getting somewhere!
4 d. A man, fellow. orig. U.S. The earliest examples may be influenced by sense 2.
1847 Swell's Night Guide 41, I can't tonight, for I am going to be seduced by a rich old Guy. 1863 C. READE Hard Cash III. xiii. 270, I wouldn't speak to you in the street for fear of disgracing you; I am such a poor little guy to be addressing a gentleman like you. 1876 L. C. BARRAUD 15 Oct. in E. M. Barraud Story of Family (1967) xi. 133 The little children are such cures, and the nurses seem to go out with the master and mistress. The little boys look great guys. 1896 ADE Artie i. 3 You guys must think I'm a quitter. 1898 Milwaukee Sentinel 22 Jan. 4/7, I s'pose you got a Bible you'll let a guy look into. 1904 Cincinnati Commercial Tribune 29 June 4 Mr. Bryan is a hefty guy when it comes to Democratic conventions and the platforms thereof. 1928 D. H. LAWRENCE in T.P.'s & Cassell's Weekly 7 July 333/3, I say to Mother: Show me somebody happy, then! And she shows me some guy, or some bright young thing, and gets mad when I say: See the pretty monkey! 1931 R. CAMPBELL Georgiad I. 16 These are the guys that find the world forlorn And wish (correctly) they had not been born. 1931 D. RUNYON (title) Guys and Dolls. 1932 E. WILSON Devil take Hindmost xi. 114 The literary guys are taking public matters more seriously. 1951 AUDEN Nones (1952) 62 Thou shalt not be on friendly terms With guys in advertising firms. 1966 WODEHOUSE Plum Pie i. 32 All the other places..had been full of guys and dolls standing bumper to bumper.
Early usage appears to draw a distinction between guys and gentlemen at a time when one could only be a member of gentility by virtue of birth, manners, and education. Respectability in the present age is thankfully available to nearly anyone who cares to take it, requiring merely the ability to manage one's own affairs.
I submit that in modern usage, the term “guy” has a useful place: describing a male human who is no longer a boy but has yet to reach proper manhood. Guys' concerns are different from what they were as boys, but they are not yet the concerns of a man. Biology alone will take a boy to the state of guyhood. Only after a guy learns who he is and takes responsibility for himself and his actions will he reach manhood. (Consider that in times past, before “guy” had its present usage, physically mature males who shirked responsibility—often possible because of independent wealth—were not men, but “playboys.”)
The incomplete formation of the guy's character seems supported by some additional usage. At the very least, comparisons will show that the man is a hardened guy: more firmly set in his character. Consider a few phrases where either word might be used and reflect on the shades in meaning:
- He is a great guy...
- Interestingly, this phrase is frequently followed by the word, “but” and some objection or other. A qualification after the phrase, “He is a great man” is comparatively infrequent.
- He is one of the guys.
- “The guys” is clearly a group having some membership. “One of the men” isn't a sentence you'd ever hear, and if it does begin that way, it will continue with a modifying phrase to create the lines of delineation to show who is in and who is not.
- He is a bad man...
- Of course there are also “bad guys,” but usually they are described as such in the context of a particular action. A bad man, on the other hand, is more severe, and is more likely to be subjected to a moral judgment, that he is evil.
- He is his own man.
- Yet somehow “He is his own guy,” just doesn't work. I will soon propose a reason why.
While we're throwing adjectives about, I am reminded of what William F. Halsey had to say:
There aren't any great men. There are just great challenges that ordinary men like you and me are forced by circumstances to meet.
I think that he is right. But more critical to the present discussion, how many guys would you cite for rising to a great challenge? When I think of “guy” and “great challenge” together, I think: “video game contest.” There is clearly a difference between an “ordinary man” and a “regular guy.”
If my assertion is correct—if, in fact, there is a difference between the ordinary man and the regular guy, surely we should see differences not only in how others describe them, but in how they conduct themselves. As I am wont to do, I will draw from my own personal observations and experiences and reflect upon them with the benefit of hindsight.
When away from work or school, guys are generally after fun. A guy's idea of fun is to hurl insults at his companions, who will likely respond in-kind. Should you actually ask a guy why he told his “friends” that they're ugly, stupid, or have bad breath, he'll likely respond that it's “all in good fun,” that he “didn't mean anything by it.” He did it because other people were doing it, too. Leave the group alone long enough and you'll find them all sitting around in a circle, hitting each other with sticks. All in good fun, of course.
A group of guys will take on a personality, distinct from what any of them has individually: the lowest-common denominator among them, which sadly goes far lower than any product of the mind, down to the physical. One might have the idea to call out at an attractive woman within earshot. In a group, others seem to be anxious to establish their identities as being part of the same group as the idiot shouting from across a parking lot, prodding the leader on to greater heights of idiocy.
Why exactly this is fun eludes me; my suspicion is that it is simply easier than having a conversation. The real problem here is that conversation is a fundamental ingredient of any society. Though one could elaborate on the obvious examples that come from the height of Greece, I will instead point to the role of coffeehouses and taverns in the American colonies of Great Britain and in the early days of the republic that they became. These “third places”—spaces frequented by people away from both home and work—played a critical role in the Enlightenment. Discussion of issues and ideas ranging from the undertakings of small and private clubs to the letters of Publius were the order of the day.
“But that's not the same thing!” some might argue. “You started out talking about fun and now you're going on about heavy discussion on deep topics. I don't know anything about that.” The symptoms are all correctly identified, but the objection is not: I am talking about the same thing. Where do guys go for “fun” after work if not to the local tavern? And where can they be found on the weekends if not the coffee shop? The difference is that those who preferred to wallow in ignorance and nonparticipation did so quietly in earlier times; today they have banded together, hoping to establish legitimacy through sheer volume. Now many of our pubs and taverns contain more television sets than active minds.
Far too many people are coming to accept as some sort of viable alternative intellectual laziness in the adult human male, thanks in large part to boys who reach physical maturity without moving beyond “guyhood.” They fill their minds with nothing and consequently have nothing to say after reporting various facts involving their jobs or lives at home. Monday morning, there isn't much to say about the weekend's football after the scores are confirmed and a few plays are reconsidered. So out come the sticks with the predictions for whose favorite teams will come out on top next weekend.
I should hasten to add that I begrudge no one some fun and really have nothing in particular against professional sports. The simple fact is that even the greatest of men have some fun and being “on” all the time is no better perpetual intellectual inactivity.
Modern men might well watch television, play video games, discuss sports, or—gasp!—be found “meditating on the very great pleasure that a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.” But these idle diversions will not prevent a man from seeing recreation for what it is: activity that should re-create him, re-constitute him, make him better prepared to deal with tomorrow's challenges. Not just in his job but in his role in society.
Other guys in business will tend to bring in their friends and otherwise engage in their clannish behavior, all doing what's necessary to achieve the objective. I do not mean basic teamwork; no business enterprise is a solo endeavor. Instead, I mean cases where personal and professional standards of behavior and ethics are given subjugated.
Consider the case of HealthSouth, well-known for its culture of teamwork, symbolized by the stainless steel structure entitled “Pulling the Wagon” that sat in front of the company's headquarters. HealthSouth did remarkably well for a number of years and then ran into financial difficulty. Someone—I have no connection to the company and have no intention to speculate on who is or is not directly responsible—decided to employ “aggressive accounting” to hide the problems from shareholders until they have a chance to put things back in order. Such a plan could only be executed in the sight of others, and quite likely with their knowledge and consent. Using HealthSouth's own metaphor, everyone needed to pull on the wagon, but this time, it was just too heavy and the wheels fell off. Billions of dollars in wealth were destroyed because a short-term loss that perhaps would have run into the millions was hidden. This loss harmed not only abstract “fatcats” who wouldn't notice the difference, but thousands of ordinary hardworking people who spent their entire working lives living modestly and building up retirement accounts that were invested there.
Had one man noticed a problem and refused to participate in what he would have correctly perceived as a cover-up, he would have been fired. (And for all we know, this might have happened.) Billions of dollars and thousands of jobs could have been spared if such a man had been joined by others of wisdom and courage. Such men need not be in the majority; in such a precarious position could anyone seriously fire even ten percent of the people privy to the situation? Guys, driven by their collectivist instincts and fearing the scorn of their peers over the loss of their own integrity, are ill-suited to the demands of public trust.
The R Word
Considering the examples of conduct, I am struck by not just by the role of responsibility but how that is reflected in relationships. In a nutshell, guys identify themselves inclusively, as part of a group. Men identify themselves exclusively, as individuals.
Going a step further, men of accomplishment are typically described as distinguished, which is to say separated from the herd. Sometimes one is distinguished largely by virtue of a title, generally one that requires work to achieve. “Doctor,” for example, is such a title though in reality the work needed to earn a Ph.D. (or an M.D., or D.O., or whatever) is what distinguishes the bearer of the title. (Hence the reason why some object to the title “doctor” being used by, say, holders of a D.C.)
Here be dragons: many will become enamored of titles and fall victim to the sweet seduction of praise and confirmation, not acting from conviction but for the purpose of receiving praise. Such men are not in fact distinguished men, but are reverting back to younger, unrefined behavior: dependence upon the group for identity.
Others are distinguished not by titles but by history and reputation. A distinguished businessman, for example, is one who is given distinction by success in business: creating capital, building industries, creating jobs, and helping to make society better. Distinction need not be so visible: some are distinguished simply by being a force for good, refusing to compromise their standards in the face of adversity, helping their fellow man, being bound by their word, and continuing to love and to empower their families.
What's Wrong With Guys?
I really don't think there's anything wrong with being a guy. As I argued earlier, it is a natural state that a maturing male will enter. Pressures that come upon boys as they mature can be severe and are well-documented, even in popular culture. Consider this turn of phrase from Rush's Subdivisions, from the 1982 album, Signals.
In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out.
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out.
Guys will more often than not be cool, conforming to whatever standard imposed upon them by their peers. Allowances are typically made for youthful indiscretion, making poor choices from a lack of experience and the subsequent inability to see through a situation to its likely outcome. Such allowances are, in my opinion, entirely proper. None of us will fail to make mistakes and even mistakes are beneficial in that they bring with them the opportunity to learn in a way that success does not. (Indeed, while making allowances for youthful folly, I think it best that the perpetrator be held responsible to remediate.)
The Making of a Man
All of that said, I maintain that there are too few men among us. Guys have, in apparently ever-increasing numbers, refused to progress further. Reaching a point of physical maturity, they continue on largely as they have since they were teenagers, free from the control of their parents but without any idea who they are, what they're doing, or why.
The drivel on television, including the “guy humor” sit-com genre, just exacerbate the problem, validating guys who bumble through their lives wasting one opportunity after another. Thus, they feel at ease, able to see themselves as part of a group, just one of the guys. Yet somehow or other, the guys on TV have beautiful wives and children who provide plucky comic relief without taking more than a few of the thirty minutes that make up the broadcast slice of life. The message that real guys get is absurd. Do whatever you want without any real regard for anyone else or effort to improve yourself and you can be Doug Hefernan. Invest in yourself, become educated and cultured, and you'll wind up a divorced and neurotic radio personality known as Frasier Crane.
We are capable of much better as has been shown in critical periods of human history, including such periods as the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. Men must make good role models of themselves. Boys must take care to look at the role models before them, not to look only at the moment, but to look through it, to the end.
* * *
To illustrate this point for boys who might be reading, let us consider high school and the people there. Yes, of course you're smitten with the cheerleader, the girl on the flag corps, or someone similar. She's as cute as can be, she's probably fun to be around, and you get a charge out of being among her acquaintance. But think of yourself ten years in the future, whom you would like to be with and what kind of life you would like to live. Don't put ten years on your cheerleader friend and think you'd like that. Look at real women who are ten years older. What kinds of qualities do you see in them that you think would make for good company? Even if you haven't much thought about it, you probably know women who are ten or fifteen years older and are just the sort of woman you would like to be with when you're their age. The question isn't how do you get such a woman now, but is instead, what will such a woman want in a man. Just as important is the second question: how do you get from where you are now to where a woman of that sophistication will want to be with you?
If she wants someone who is well-read, that means you'll have to read a variety of books. If she wants someone who is independent, that means you're going to have to figure out how to avoid being subject to the whims of others. If she wants someone who looks good, that means you're going to need to figure out what the right bit of diet, exercise, dress, and grooming is going to keep you looking your best. None of these will come about from something that you do one day. You can't fake this stuff or just claim to have it, like a college degree. These are all side-effects of what you did every day over a period of years and whether you've got the right stuff for her will be clear in what you say and do. You've got a lot of work to do to get where you want to be, so by all means, start immediately but don't worry about how much work there is and do not get discouraged. The simple fact is that you have ten years to become the kind of man that an adult woman of sophistication will want. Don't ignore the moment, but neither forget that a lifetime is nothing more than a series of moments, each of which is affected by the ones previous.
Meanwhile, your cute cheerleader might have no interest in you in your reading and studying of practical skills that will make you valuable in commercial enterprises. If they're like the cheerleaders I remember, they'll probably be nice to you but not really take much interest until they pass you a note before class starts detailing some dreadful scheme to get your answers to their copies of the upcoming exam. But a decade from now, while you've got a real shot at the sort of woman you've dreamed of, the former cheerleader will be wondering why being married to that idiot captain of the football team isn't fun like high school was.
This exercise is useful for many purposes beyond love and family. The same works with career and with any other pursuit that can be undertaken. Knowing your principles, what matters to you, and seeing where you want to be is foundational: critical, but insufficient on its own. Subsequently, you must prove what you want by your daily behavior, how you act in the moment, knowing that it will affect your options in the next. Living by your principles is both the hardest and most rewarding part of being a man.
* * *
That we need more men of perspicacity, goodwill, and courage is abundantly evident. Only by having our guys refine themselves into men will we get them, and only then will we have the ordinary men we need to address the great challenges that confront us in our daily lives, in personal interaction, in our clubs, in our commerce, and in our society.
Last modified 2005-06-12 05:56 PM