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Three Kinds of Men

Power signals among men—and the regular guys caught in the middle.

Men have a secret code, conveyed in a glance or a posture, that signals whether there is going to be a contest. The information is broadcast only on an interpersonal channel; you can’t tell by looking at him what his game is. A brawny, ripped athlete can be a committed sub; the most passive, harmless-looking hippie can act superior to everyone else (usually by proclaiming himself the most peaceful and the one who is leaving the smallest carbon footprint). The three signals are dom, sub, and tit for tat (ready to be equal but disinclined to submit). I’ll call the third group regular guys. The groups have also been called alpha, beta, and omega, but from what I’ve read, alpha and beta seem to me to be merely one expression of dom and sub, respectively. The groups might also be described with the three Kohutian transferences: devaluing, idealizing, and twinship. Or consider aggressive, limp, and firm handshakes.

Many committed doms wind up having friends who don’t challenge their essential superiority, and their interchanges with those friends look equal. Or two doms can become friends by facilitating each other’s performance of dominance. Many subs drift toward situations where contests are so unlikely that they relax and act normal. Many regular guys get into situations where contests are so ubiquitous or dangerous that they adopt a dom posture, as in prisons or philosophy departments. So you can’t always tell what’s what until you meet the person.

Doms and subs can sense only other doms or subs; they can’t detect regular guys. A dom reads a regular guy as a sub, unless provoked, in which case he reads him as another dom. A sub reads a regular guy as a dom. Code-signaling of this sort, by the way, is age-graded. A middle-aged or elderly man can assume an authoritative role vis-à-vis a young man in a way that is dom, sub, or regular guy. In the last case, the message is that I was like you when I was your age or that you will be like me when you are my age.

When I was young, I got a lot of cultural messages that said you have to stand up to doms and show kindness to subs to be a real man. All this effort made it harder to find regular guys to develop friendships with. Inclusion of doms and subs made it difficult to establish social norms that allow for regular guys to act regular. In a group with neither, real friendships emerge. I could still tell immediately if someone was a regular guy, but I didn’t know that I could simply ignore and avoid doms and subs. Sometimes, you have to rebuke a dom just to get them to back off. Sometimes, you have to accept the handwringing and compliments of subs until you can steer clear of them. But once you relax the cultural message about manhood, you can reserve the need to stand up to doms until they are encroaching on other people’s rights and not just taking up space.

In a gathering last week of regular guys, I did something I rarely do socially. I mentioned an article I wrote that I thought they might find interesting. Every man there understood that I was not bragging about writing an article; they all understood that I was sharing something, and they responded accordingly (including the fact that no one complimented me). If a dom or sub had been present, this interchange could not have happened. Doms and subs turn any group into a status-conscious hierarchy rather than a brotherhood.

A regular guy can be dominant or acquiescent without becoming a dom or a sub. If you are on a basketball team with Steph Curry, he will insist on the ball at the end of the game, and you should let him take the shot. But that’s because he’s better at shooting a basketball than you are, not because he is in charge. One man will take over the grilling because he has to be in command; another will take over the grilling because he knows when the steaks are medium rare. Not all explaining is mansplaining, just as not all opening of jars is a claim of superiority. Women and regular guys can usually tell the difference.

A word about toxic masculinity. The right hates this term because it is often used as a synonym for masculinity, as if the left thinks (as it sometimes seems to) that there is something wrong with men for standing up for themselves and others, trying to be a good provider, or rectifying injustices to those one loves and not just those who are disadvantaged. (To be clear, these indicia of healthy masculinity are also desirable in women. I blogged about the difference between sex and gender here.) To me, toxic masculinity involves other, exaggerated messages about masculine virtues: domination rather than strength, submission rather than resolving conflict, greed rather than ambition, performing brilliance rather than intelligence, paternalism rather than guidance, and so on. Doms and subs represent toxic masculinity; they turn every encounter into a potential fight, by brandishing or by surrendering, by showing their teeth or showing their necks, and they make the world into a prison yard. The vast majority of men are regular guys, men who, when they find themselves in a prison yard, try to escape, but meanwhile have to posture themselves as doms and subs.