The XX Factor

Love Advice for Young British Gentlemen, From the Men of Slate

Students at Eton showing off their courtship skills

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

English roses, take heart! Three schools in the UK have launched a male mentoring program to teach boys the art of courtship, the Telegraph reports. Male teachers will go one-on-one with students deemed “in need,” trying to reverse the effects of pornography and foster respect for our fair sex. Lads will learn “how to ask a girl out, save money, treat women and how to present yourself and shave.” They will also educe what secrets of masculinity they can from “golf lessons, football tournaments and team building activities such as camping, survival skills and bowling.”

“It’s about improving self-esteem and helping them to grow up to be decent men,” says Victoria Overy, head teacher at the Chase High School at Essex and possessor of a name that probably gives her grief on the daily. Labour MP Diane Abbott has also warned of a “crisis of masculinity” in the UK, exacerbated by the million plus children raised without fathers just this year.

Countering the degradations of porn seems like a fine idea, as does giving young boys role models to emulate. (Also, I feel like there’s an adorable sitcom in this.) Yet the efficacy and value of the scheme obviously depends on what, exactly, these kids are taught. Will boys be instructed to shave their sideburns or let them flourish? Will they learn to text with or without punctuation? How often should they reach for the check? Is it ever OK to live tweet an argument?

As the Cut points out, schools would be wise to solicit advice from actual women before launching a dating course to sculpt impressionable minds. (Allison Davis recommends deodorant studies. I’d add a general hygiene unit with forays into facial hair and bathroom maintenance.) But this reservation points to a larger problem with even the best-intentioned attempts at man-training. No one knows how to be a man in 2013. Perhaps you climb a mountain or buy a Mustang or stay at home while your high-powered wife brings Wall Street to its knees. Perhaps you shoot guns or crochet scarves or wear drag. Does a real man compliment a woman’s appearance—or is that sexist? Should he end a fling with a firm text or phone call, or let the correspondence wither away?

In the face of all this uncertainty, I asked a few Slate men what they would tell their tender yearlings about the Meaning of Maleness—and what they wished someone had told them. A few responses below:

As a teenager, I really could have used advice on some basic style rules, especially fit. It’s not just “don’t wear brown shoes with black pants.” When you get a blazer, a quarter-inch off cuff is supposed to show beyond the blazer sleeve. If you can stick two fingers between your waistband and your waist, your pants don’t fit. If the bottoms of your jeans are fraying, it’s because they’re too freaking long! Your glasses should be just as wide and no wider than your actual face. Don’t wear boots with shorts! I wish I had known these things when I was an unfashionable high school freshman. Also, how to cook your own food, and how to do laundry.

— Chris Kirk

I could have used instruction in how to break up with a girl, a skill no boy and few men have mastered.

— John Swansburg

Don’t talk about yourself. Ask about her, and listen.

— Will Saletan

Treat the woman in your life the way you wish your dad had treated your mother, and you can’t go wrong.

— Chad Andrew Lorenz

It’s a myth that you need an “in,” or some kind of excuse to talk to a girl. There’s no better pickup line than “Hi, I’m ____.” Talk to her as casually as you would one of your male friends, and no more than you would talk to one of your male friends. She’ll like you more if you’re relaxed, not in her face, and not playing all your cards at once.

Never start a fight, but if someone starts a fight with you, fight back. Even if you lose, you’ll surprise the person, and they won’t mess with you again.

— Ryan Vogt

Don’t lie. It never ends well.

— Will Oremus

Do not spend even a single moment wondering about the implications of the gender of your friends. 

If you are the only boy in a group, you will sometimes feel compelled to take a leadership role. Resist this urge, unless you are truly qualified; it’s merely the result of sexist conditioning telling girls to defer to the opinions of boys.

Use foul language around girls and boys alike. 

Telling your parents/siblings/family that you love them doesn’t make you less masculine. 

Be very kind to animals, even (/especially) when other boys aren’t. 

Salad forks and soup spoons are bullshit. Just use whatever utensil feels right. You should also definitely eat off a knife if you want to.

Masculinity is a fabricated concept, but it’s okay to want to “feel like a man” or “be manly.” Just realize that “being manly” simply means “being a decent person to those around you.” Corollary: The best way to be “unmanly” is to be a thoughtless jerk. 

There is no feminine mystique. Women/girls are wonderful not because of some mysterious feminine power, but because they are humans, like you are.

— Mark Joseph Stern

You only need a teeny little bit of shaving cream. Mostly, your stubble really needs to be softened up with warm water.

Don’t be so afraid to ask girls out. Even the rejection will make a good story later. I am full of regrets about this.

Dance! Much of life worse because of self consciousness about being a bad dancer. But it doesn’t matter.

Probably not such a great idea to have a photo of your mother hanging above your bed, even if it is part of a montage. It was part of a montage, Hanna!

— David Plotz

As Love, Actually proved without a doubt, impressionable British lad, your charming accent will go a long way toward wooing American women.

— Dan Kois