Monday, April 25, 2011

Brendan Tapley - The guy code: Deciphering the mysteries of male friendship [updated]

[When I first posted this, early this morning, I somehow missed the 2nd page . . . it's now included - sorry about that.]

This is a revealing little first-person explication of the "guy code," the unspoken rules that define how men relate to and with each other. For most straight men, this "scene" looks familiar, give or take a few details, right down to the use of alcohol to facilitate bonding.

Whole books have been written about this process - but the best explanation is recognition of a scene that could be from our own lives. Tapley, however, reveals his own sense of knowing how the game is played, knowing that Sean's image is a pose.

The guy code


Deciphering the mysteries of male friendship.

April 24, 2011|By Brendan Tapley

The downward nod (a male gesture of respect) had taken a year to become the upward nod (a male gesture of friendship), so I wasn’t surprised when, six years after meeting, Sean and I hung out for the first time. “Anne’s away for the weekend. Come over, have some beers,” he said, pronouncing “over” and “beer” as New Englanders do. “Sounds good,” I said.

Sean and I worked out at the same gym; like clockwork, we showed up at 5:35 a.m., parked our trucks in our usual spaces, and descended the staircase to the locker rooms. For a while, the nod was all, but thanks to the occasional good joke or well-timed silence, we began pausing at the bench or leg press to exchange small talk. It was months before those conversations got around to each other’s work; years before we spoke about family or relationships.

Sean always wore the New Hampshire uniform: Carhartt’s, baseball cap, and fleece vest. He was solidly built with dare-me facial hair, but his kind eyes softened his potentially menacing impression. His reserve didn’t bother me; I knew it belonged to a variety shared by most men: Having once been teased for revealing something, we pursue an aloofness that defies being made the punch line again.

I had grown up in a matriarchal family where revelation reigned supreme, but in the eight years I’d worked in this stalwart town, I’d found that masculinity’s protocols required an “earning” that made any breakthrough (a nod, a playful punch) more meaningful. Such moments were analogous to those 19th-century novels where subtle gestures belie the feelings behind them. Men, by their very Victorianism, offered an old-fashioned sincerity that these days was dismissed as sentimental.

I arrived at Sean’s around 6. He had recently moved in with his girlfriend, and the house reflected that – the considered paint colors, the careful appointments in the dining room. But he made a point of showing me the roofing he had installed over the kitchen and the bathroom he had renovated for Anne.

After the tour, we started drinking, alternating tequila and beer. We grilled venison, the freezer burn indicating it was not Sean, but one of his Puritan ancestors who had made the kill. We played ping-pong until sweaty, and half-watched episodes of a television show that, in my inebriated state, seemed to consist of only one shouted line: “Hey, you – hold it!”

While Sean was retrieving more venison from the grill, I spied a single photograph of his on the wall. He was pictured with three other guys on a beach. They were shirtless, their arms over one another’s shoulders. Impervious.

“That’s when I looked halfway decent,” he slurred, coming up behind me.

“What are you talking about?” I shoved him.

“Oh, I don’t know …”

I waited for him to finish, but nothing came. He was still staring at the photo. “It’s just …” he cleared his throat. “Well, what do you think – you think I still look OK?”

From a guy whose every deliberate silence projected authority, the vulnerable look that had come over him was unsettling. Intimate. I looked back to the photograph.

Make a joke, I thought. Something predictable, defusing, along the lines of “Well, man, you’re not my type, but Anne’s not kicking you out of bed, so no worries.” But as much as my joke would return to Sean his – well, his “guyness” – I thought there might be something else worth returning more.

“Listen to me,” I said. “She’s very lucky to have you.” Sean scanned my expression, looking for the trapdoor. “Very lucky.”

His hand found my shoulder. He gripped it. Then he walked back outside.

We passed out in the living room. I woke around 4 a.m. My arm, flung over the couch, had fallen asleep, my hand nearly touching Sean’s on the floor. I rose, found a blanket to lay over him, and left.

We never got together again.

Recently, I picked up the phone in my new office at my new job; it was Sean. He had called to say he was engaged to Anne. I was pleased for him and decided to write him a note. In it, I described the qualities I admired about him, what kind of man I believed he was. On the way to the post office, I considered whether this was a breach of protocol, an aberrant gesture. But I recalled that night and slid the envelope across the counter, nodding (downward) toward the postman. He postmarked it, tossed it into the mail bin, and nodded back.

Brendan Tapley is writing a book on masculinity. He lives in Northampton. Send comments to


Jeff said...

The essay continues here

william harryman said...

thanks Jeff! don't know how I missed that - appreciate the heads up