Cracking the Guy Code: Deciphering the unspoken rules

Laura Donovan Contributor
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Pop quiz: when is it okay for two male friends to share dessert at a restaurant?

(a) When separate forks are used;

(b) When the dessert is split in half;

(c) When the dessert is split in half and served on separate plates;

(d) Never;

(e) Never ever.

Time’s up. If your answer wasn’t “d” or “e” – and frankly, “e” is preferred – then you likely need a remedial course in Guy Code, the unwritten rules governing platonic male friendships, a set of mores enjoying an ongoing moment in the pop culture sun that continues with the new film “50/50.”

Rule No. 22: Never be serious when you can be flippant.

Rule No. 56: Go for a jog together. Not a walk.

For American men, the Guy Code is like the Force in “Star Wars”: It surrounds us. Guides us. Binds our social universe together. The Code is fodder for standup routines and sociological research, online debates and beer commercials.

As a subtext, it also informs the new film “50/50.”

A humorous, semi-autobiographical account of actor and writer Will Reiser’s mid-20s cancer diagnosis, “50/50” largely deals with how two male friends struggle to cope with sickness and mortality.

In the film, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, the Reiser character, while actor Seth Rogen plays Kyle, Adam’s best friend, a role based on Mr. Rogen’s real-life friendship with Mr. Reiser.

Adam undergoes chemotherapy. He has girlfriend problems. He prepares for last-ditch, lifesaving surgery. In response, the two friends drink beer, crack jokes, smoke weed and … crack more jokes. At one point, Kyle even takes Adam to a bar to pick up girls, using cancer as a romantic hook.

At no point do the two friends share a deep conversation, a good cry or – heaven forbid – a slice of pie, even when they have the munchies.

Doing so would violate the Code.

“Men don’t go out to an intimate French restaurant and share a bottle of wine,” said Geoffrey Greif, a professoratthe University of Maryland School of Social Work and author of “Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.” “The codes are part of how we live. Go to a basketball court anywhere in the United States, and there are certain rules. ‘You make it, you take it.’ Nobody has to explain.”

Know the Code

Rule No. 76: Do not occupy adjacent movie theater seats, sports arena seats or divider-less public urinals unless all other options are unavailable.

Rule No. 76(a): Rule No. 76 does not apply to the troughs at Wrigley Field.

The Code goes back. Way back. Possibly to the biblical injunction against coveting thy neighbor’s wife; probably to Hammurabi’s injunction that if a man has smitten the privates of another man, he shall be scourged with sixty blows of an ox hide.

Junk punching: Even in ancient Babylon, a definite Guy Code foul.

For much of recorded history, the Code wasn’t, well, recorded. Male friends simply had to figure it out, either through astute observation or messy trial and error. Written lists covered the biggies but failed to address smaller, everyday issues, like a buddy having a really hot sister.

(For the record: Constantly reminding said friend of said sister’s hotness? Cool. Almost mandatory, actually. But acting on said assessment? Not cool).

In the here and now, however, the Code has become the subject of public delineation and debate – part of a larger cultural celebration and embrace of male friendship, an XY flowering that began with a skateboard magazine editor coining the term “bromance” in the 1990s, reached a tipping point with Judd Apatow’s cinematic oeuvre and entered a baroque period with the short-lived 2008 MTV reality show “Bromance,” starring Brody Jenner.

Also assisting? Writer Jennifer 8. Lee, who in a seminal 2005 newspaper article popularized the term “Man Date” – essentially, two heterosexual men socializing without “the crutch of business or sports.” Ms. Lee was drawn to the subject after observing the “internal sense of gerrymandering” men had regarding one-on-one hangout time.

Meeting for brunch? Man Date.

Meeting at the exact same restaurant, at the exact same time, for the exact same brunch, but nursing dueling hangovers? Not a Man Date.

Q: Is it acceptable for a man to use the word “cute” when describing another man or couple?

A: No.

More recently, an episode of the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” saw the character Barney Stinson (played by Neil Patrick Harris) espouse the virtues of the “Bro Code,” a tongue-in-cheek guide to male friendship later turned into a pair of books, primarily penned by show writer Matt Kuhn. Among its do’s-and-don’ts:

Article 8: A Bro never sends a greeting card to another Bro.

Article 44: A Bro never applies sunscreen to another Bro.

Article 52: A Bro is not required to remember another Bro’s birthday, though a phone call every now and then probably wouldn’t kill him.


Cracking the Code

Rule No. 30: A hug involves one – and only one – arm.

When Toronto Raptors players Reggie Evans and Leandro Barbosa walked off the court following a victory over the Orlando Magic last spring, they did – at least by Guy Code standards – the unthinkable.

They held hands.

No bro-dacious fist bump.

No supportive, you-might-have-a-torn-ACL arm over the shoulder.

Just … intertwined fingers! The same affectionate gesture, it should be noted, that is totally cool and decidedly non-sexual in many other countries, and also when deployed during meetings between American presidents and Saudi royals.

“Fitting into the code, a piece of it is to assert that we are straight men,” Mr. Greif said. “For my book, we did research with 400 guys. A large percentage let the fear of appearing gay shift the kinds of things they will do with their male friends.”

In part, the Code is rooted in a desire to not send the wrong sexual signals. Article 27: A Bro never removes his shirt in front of other Bros, except at a resort pool or on the beach.

More broadly, the Code is a coping mechanism for male social fears and insecurities.

In short, it exists to help men feel safe with each other.

When former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom had an affair with the wife of a trusted friend and campaign aide, female voters reportedly were forgiving. By contrast, male voters were furious, downright apoplectic.

The reason? Mr. Newsom blatantly violated the Code. If a man can’t trust a friend to stay away from his significant other, then whom can he trust?

“It takes a while for men to trust other men,” Mr. Greif said. “Men in my study describe friendship as involving loyalty, dependability, trust and understanding. When you violate someone’s loyalty or trust, that’s a stab in the back.”

According to Indiana University of Pennsylvania sociologist Robert Heasley, the Code assuages men’s deep and powerful fear of ridicule.

During a recent class on masculinity, Mr. Heasley asked his male students about men making scant eye contact with each other while conversing, a Code-like behavior.

“The first kid said, ‘I don’t want anybody to [step] on me, and I’m not going to let anybody be able to get to me,’ ” said Mr. Heasley, who also has worked on long-term studies of male friendships. “There’s a safety in being shut down. The unwritten code is connected to men maintaining a distance from each other.”

Case in point: Research shows that male friends are far more likely than women to have what academics call “shoulder-to-shoulder” relationships – that is, they engage each other by doing stuff.

Side-by-side, men watch sports. Play golf. Go to the gym. Literally sit side-by-side at bars, as opposed to facing each other.

As for, you know, talking? Not so much.

“We don’t deal with the struggles in our lives, or even the pleasant stuff,” Mr. Heasley said. “We don’t open up to each other. The language we use is abbreviated: ‘What’s up? That’s cool. Hey, bro.’

“Even with humor and teasing, there’s a lot of safety. If I can put you down in a funny way, you know I like you. But I can’t say that I like you, because that would be a vulnerability thing.”

Mr. Heasley also works as a psychological therapist. Many times, his male patients will talk about having same-sex friends.

I know this guy. He’s really good. We hang out a lot.

“So I’ll say, ‘It sounds like you really like him,’ ” Mr. Heasley said. “And he’ll say, ‘Yeah, we hang out a lot.’ It takes three tries for them to get the word ‘like’ out. And ‘love?’ Forget it.”

Up to Code?

Rule No. 17: Tears are impermissible outside of a death in the family and/or the retirement of an athletic legend.

Early in “50/50,” Mr. Gordon-Levitt’s character, Adam, prepares for chemotherapy by shaving his head. He does so with the help of Mr. Rogen’s character, Kyle, who helpfully has provided a set of hair clippers.

Standing in front of a mirror, the two share the following exchange:

Adam: What do you use [these clippers] for?

Kyle: [Pause]. My body.

The scene – an unscripted exchange added near the end of preproduction – typifies the oft-funny approach the film takes to a mortally serious subject, the same approach Mr. Reiser and Mr. Rogen took in real life.

“We went through cancer together,” Mr. Reiser said. “Neither of us knew how to deal with it.”

“We weren’t very emotive,” Mr. Rogen said.

“We weren’t equipped with the tools to express our emotions,” Mr. Reiser said. “We’re comedy writers, so there was a lot of humorous banter.”

“We didn’t really talk about the awkward emotional things until we sat down to write the movie,” Mr. Rogen said

Such is the Code. And such are its limitations. During a recent airplane flight, Mr. Greif chatted with a seatmate, a man in his early 30s.

The man told Mr. Grief he had moved to a new town and was having a hard time making friends. Playing tennis, he had met another man whose company he enjoyed – only he was afraid that if he called the other man to pursue a closer friendship, the other man would consider him “a stalker.”

“I think men are missing out,” Mr. Heasley said. “In our culture, men have a lot more isolation than women. We’re more likely to commit suicide and not get mental health assistance.”

Mr. Heasley said that his wife once told him that as a woman, she was glad she could relax with friends and not have to worry about proving her womanhood.

“With men, it seems like there’s no end to being conscious about proving your manhood,” he said. “As a result, we miss chances to have vulnerability and closeness with male friends in our lives.”

Speaking of vulnerability: At the end of “50/50,” Adam sports a large, grisly incision along his spine, the result of major surgery. Kyle tenderly dresses the wound with his finger – a violation of Guy Code, to be sure, but not of friendly love.

“That really happened,” Mr. Reiser said. “Seth was my Patch Adams.”

“We wanted to show that my character’s good intentions finally manifested themselves,” Mr. Rogen said. “He wanted to help but didn’t know how to do it. So he made jokes.”

Mr. Rogen laughed.

“I wasn’t nearly as insensitive as my character in the movie,” he said.

And maybe that’s the most important thing about the Code: knowing when to break it.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Times.

Laura Donovan