The following excerpt is from chapter 14, “No Man’s Land,” from the Masterminds and Wingmen by Rosalind Wiseman. This excerpt analyzes the social hierarchy within guy-world and helps break down the largely visible trends that appear within a school or community. My name is Micah Garry, intern at Cultures of Dignity, and I’ve chosen this passage because it puts into words the societal tendencies that I’ve witnessed all my life. So, I encourage you to not just read this passage, but to look around your community and visualize how realistic this excerpt is to your life.
The Social Class Breakdown
By Rosalind Wiseman
As human beings, there is no way for everyone to get along. Ever since the cavemen times, our species has leaned into groups and categories. But in the modern age, how have these groups evolved? This concept gets even more interesting when examining the youth of our world. So, let me break down all the components of the natural social hierarchy among boys (although the lessons can be spread to all genders) that is inescapable.
Most guys I talk to believe there’s an elite 10 percent who look like they fit into the Act-Like-a-Man-Box (ALMB) the most, followed by the 75 percent who make up the general population and the 10 percent who hang out at the bottom but have a strong group, leaving 5 percent of kids who satellite around everyone else from the outer perimeter. Every group has a corresponding girls’ group to the point that some are entirely coed, but for the most part, there’s limited social interaction between these larger groups of boys.
The 10 Percenters
For the top 10 percent, conforming to the ALMB is law. Those in this group aren’t individuals, they’re pieces of a machine. There are four defining characteristics of this top 10 percent. One, they look like they’re good in at least one Boy World sport— football, basketball, soccer, hockey, lacrosse. Two, their hair, clothes, walk, swagger, and slang are the same. That look becomes their social uniform. Three, their parents are so invested in their sons’ status that they allow any “bad boy” behavior from them by supporting it outright, looking the other way, making excuses for it, or denying it altogether. Four— and maybe the most important— these guys have an intense desire to be in, and remain in, that 10 percent group.
The “10 Percenters” are usually identified by seventh grade. By eighth grade, it’s absolutely clear to all the other boys in the grade who is in the top 10 percent. While some of the 10 Percenters may have leftover friends who didn’t “make the cut,” the public nature of these friendships will gradually disappear and will only be resurrected by necessity. (Maybe they’re related, or their parents are friends and their families socialize, or they have a class with the guy and no other guy in the 10 percent is in the class with him.) Listen to what guys say about the 10 percent.
They constantly put up a front, and they build it up in school. They walk around with this scowl and attitude of, “I’m so cold and tired of everything.”
— Ethan, 16
It’s like a cult. Every year a couple graduate, so they add a few. It’s a continuous cycle.
— Auguste, 18
At my school, I’m in that 10 percent elite, but I honestly feel like I have to fight for it. I’m not the meathead jock who plays lacrosse and football and gets the praise handed down to them. To be up in the 10 percent elite, I have to be bold and make some moves that I personally wouldn’t make but have to in order to fit in. We [the 10 percenters] are the ones with the parties, the booze, and the hot girls. I wish I didn’t care as much about my social standing, but no matter what any guy says, they truly care.
— Sean, 17
While the 10 Percenters feel self-conscious about socializing outside of their tribe, the guys of “the Majority” usually feel that they can hang out with kids in other groups. The 75 percent is made up of different groups of about five to ten kids each. Regardless of their social status, all guys are still subject to the pressure to live up to our culture’s standards of masculinity, so the guys in the Majority can be self-conscious— but they don’t constantly think about their image as much as the 10 percenters above them. The only time a guy in the Majority intensely cares about his image is when he decides to fight his way into the 10 percent.
The 75 percent is much more open to change. I move around.in the 75 percent group. What I’ve found is that it’s a lot easier to be sitting at one table with one group in the 75 percent and go to another table the next day, because they aren’t as territorial as the upper 10 percent.
— Will, 15
I’m in a pretty high group. Not the highest but pretty high. In tenth grade, I had gotten into theater, and one day the theater kids invited me to a party, and that felt incredible. Some people would say that those kids invited me because I’m in a higher group than they are, but that’s not true. They’re happy to keep to their group. When they did that, it was a huge feeling of acceptance.
— Hunter, 17
The Bottom Rung
Adults often assume that guys on “the Bottom Rung” are miserable, lonely, depressed, and the subject of the most bullying. It’s not true. Bullying between boys usually happens when they jockey for power within a group or when someone goes after a kid in the Outer Perimeter. Guys on the Bottom Rung know their low social position, know they can appear odd to others, and don’t care as long as they have at least one strong friendship. Many of them believe that because they aren’t even in the running for high social status, they have more dependable friends. The members of this group are usually very connected to each other and don’t feel like they have to constantly prove themselves to anyone.
While most boys don’t mind being low in the pecking order, most parents either don’t believe their son ranks so low or are so unhappy about it that they can’t stop interfering in their son’s life to improve social standing. Of course, sometimes the boys themselves are unhappy with their place in the pecking order; if they don’t have much luck with girls, for example, they may feel like being “cooler” or more popular would solve the problem.
Parents sometimes lack the ability to distinguish between a kid who’s on the bottom rung and has a group of friends and a kid who’s more of a loner and fighting to retain friends in general. They aren’t unpopular in the same way.
— Will, 15
My friends and I in elementary school were in the bottom rung. We didn’t do sports and we acted silly, but we had each other. We were called stupid all the time by the other kids, but we reminded each other that we weren’t.
— Marcus, 11
I think the parents on the bottom rung either don’t care or try so hard to raise their son’s social standing because they might feel as if they have failed as parents. But that’s not the case at all. Some of the kids on the bottom rung may have two really good friends who may be better than fifty crappy friends.
— Miles, 16
The Outer Perimeter
The Outer Perimeter (OP) is made up of guys who are seen by their peers as existing apart from the entire social system. It’s populated with anarchists, pranksters, politicians, obsessed single-subject or single-sport high-achievers, and kids seriously lacking in social skills. I’m grouping a lot of people in the OP who have very different characteristics and can be at either the highest or the lowest level of social status.
A boy can choose to be in the OP because he understands the ALMB (even though he’s not going to call it that), sees no value in joining the social system and has strong friendships outside of school. This kid can be exceptionally good at blending into the background. Other kids don’t find him irritating; they just don’t know what to make of him and sometimes don’t know he’s there.
There are also guys in the OP whose position is inflexible. With limited skills in forming and maintaining basic social relationships, they have a really hard time understanding how they come across to others and an equally hard time reading social cues that are obvious to everybody else. These kids are either ignored or targeted for ridicule because they can be so weird to the other kids.
Since I am really bad at making friends, I have to keep any that I make. Right now I have one friend, but they don’t want me making other friends. I don’t know what to do. I’m stuck.
— Michael, 16
My freshman year I had a roommate who just had no social skills. He literally made other people hate him. When I tried to talk to him about it, he was completely unwilling to take other guys’ advice to get along better with everybody else.
— Ned, 16
Read the rest of chapter 14, “No Man’s Land,” from Masterminds & Wingmen to learn more about these “social classes,” how to help the young people struggling at the bottom and everything else you may need to know!