Judging a Man By the Company He Keeps

December 7, 2010

Jackie Berkman is a Berkeley student columnist who recently wrote about what he called “the sub-par dating scene in college.” No surprise there, but something in his article caught my eye. He reports overhearing a snippet of conversation:

[There were] two dudes walking in the opposite direction of me, and one of them, shaggy haired and with an earnest San Diego surfer voice said, “I mean he’s my friend and everything but the guy is a douchebag.”

Normally I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Several of the guys who regularly comment here have actually said they like having friends who are cads. Cads know how to have a good time – they’re lots of fun to hang out with. Since douchebaggery is generally reserved for the ladies, it need not affect a friendship between two guys.

But should it? Is it fair to judge one another by the company we keep? Some very wise people have said so.

He who walks with wise men will be wise. But the companion of fools will be destroyed.

Proverbs 13:20

Innumerable other examples abound. I’ve said in the past that a man’s character may be judged by the nature of his relationships. How does he regard his mother? Does he enjoy a relationship of mutual respect with his father? Does he have close friendships? Does he get along with people at work? Is he kind and respectful to strangers and service employees?

But I’ve never specifically questioned the relevance of a man’s choice of friends and confidantes. After all, sometimes our friendships go back to childhood. At other times, difficult people choose us, and we do our best to connect. Social groups include not just good friends, but friends of friends, and so on.

I had a conversation with a reader last weekend that touched on this question. Emma has been dating her boyfriend Scott for about a year, and the relationship is going well. Last spring, the couple introduced Scott’s best friend Brett to Emma’s close friend Tina. They hit it off immediately and appeared to be close for three or four months. When Brett revealed himself to be a cheating, lying cad, Tina was devastated. Scott has been understandably reluctant to discuss Brett’s behavior. Emma is stuck in the middle, empathizing with Tina, but not wanting to pit herself against Scott, who in his silence is loyal to his friend. However, when Scott recently invited Emma to bring some friends to a party, he specifically excluded Tina.

“Don’t bring Tina, that would be awkward for Brett.”

Emma was furious. “Awkward for Brett? Brett’s an asshole. Why should Tina stay home alone? Why are you even friends with that jerk?”

“Brett’s really fun, he’s a cool guy.”

“He’s not a good person! Why do you take his side?”

“OK, I’ll admit I wouldn’t let him near my sister. But we go back to college. Guys aren’t like girls about this stuff. It’s none of my business what he does with chicks.”

“Well, it should be your business when he dicks over my best friend.”

“Whoa, dicks over? That guy gets more ass than a toilet seat. Tina was stupid to get involved with him.”

“You thought it was a great idea to set them up! Why did you think that would work?”

“I was just looking out for my boy!”

Emma has a point. Is loyalty to a friend appropriate when that friend is a man of poor character? Is it OK to compartmentalize character? One standard for interacting with the guys, another for women? Should Scott feel obligated to tell Brett that what he did wasn’t cool? Scott is obviously unwilling to rock the boat, in fact hasn’t even indicated that he believes Brett is in the wrong. Emma will need to decide if Scott’s choice of friends, and his unquestioning loyalty to them, is something she can live with.

It’s clear that cads, and/or Big Men on Campus, not only enjoy being targeted by hypergamous females, they enjoy enormous respect among other guys. When I attempted to research this topic – Why are men friends with jerks? – Google actually came up empty. Instead I got pages and pages of why women dig jerks. Yet men dig jerks too. There’s a male to male social proof that is a powerful motivator. Just like the girl who wants to be admitted to the inner circle of the Queen Bee, it seems that many guys value their connection to the Douchebag.

It may be as simple as:

Jerks get girls ——-> Being friends with a jerk means getting to be around girls ——-> Orbiting the jerk on any given night may yield castoffs that I can hook up with ——–> Jerk friend status plus hookup cred = increased social status and poon for Me.

After all, incentives drive behavior. But at what price to one’s integrity? How willing are you to compromise your own values to be with a man who has compromised his? There’s no right answer. We human beings are a selfish bunch.

In the end, we are indeed judged by the company we keep, but perhaps not as much as we should be.