The alpha male is the man who other men want to be, who women want to be with and who gets what he wants – usually women. It could seem like a quaint concept these days if it wasn’t so radioactively toxic. But despite the revelations that precipitated the fall of disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein, knuckle-draggers like Donald Trump continue to seize power and grab pussy with apparent impunity, not to mention impoliteness.
The term “alpha male” comes, like much of the primitive behaviour that it wrongly legitimises, from the animal kingdom. It was largely restricted to primatology until the publication of Frans de Waal’s 1982 book Chimpanzee Politics, which compared monkey interactions to human, just as Nigel Farage defended Trump by likening him to a silverback gorilla. In the nineties, aptly named consultant Naomi Wolf was reported as telling Al Gore, then VP to Bill ‘Slick Willie’ Clinton, that he needed to be more ‘alpha’ to become the big dog. Thus the term could be responsible for more damage than we’ll ever know.
The other bible of the alpha male movement was 2005’s The Game, which brought pick-up ‘artistry’ and peacocking (shudder) to the masses. In fairness to author Neil Strauss, the book was at least partly intended to illustrate the limitations of such an approach: a boost in false confidence and transitory hook-ups, but a barrier to real connection or long-term relationships. Instead, like more literary portrayals of less-than-aspirational figures from The Great Gatsby to American Psycho, it was interpreted as a how-to manual by a generation of dysfunctional men who can’t talk to women without canned material.
Rethinking The Alpha Male
There are all kinds of problems with the notion of the alpha male. Like some pseudo evolutionary psychology and fundamental misunderstanding of biology. Or that animal hierarchies, where there’s only one alpha, aren’t a great analogue for human ones, where that’s clearly not the case. (We’ve thrived precisely because we’re social, collaborative creatures.) Or the wildly different contexts that we inhabit: you might be an alpha in the boardroom but not the weights room, Elon Musk and not The Rock. Or to paraphrase Sylvia Plath, that girls are not machines that you put negging coins in until sex falls out.
The alpha male plays on the inadequacies and insecurities of young men, as do the unqualified self-help gurus and internet chat rooms who bandy the term about like it’s a real thing. Not winning at life? Unhappy? That’s because you’re a beta-male loser. But you could become an alpha in just seven simple steps. Step one: buy my e-book! It reduces being a man to a list of stuff to purchase or skills to master, a template for the cardboard masculinity of James Bond or Don Draper. Again, look beyond the two-dimensional surface and they’re not exactly the most well-adjusted individuals, or the happiest.
As chimerical as the ‘real man’, the alpha male myth obscures that there are many ways to be a successful man in the 21st century, and many definitions of success. More importantly, acting like a big, swinging dickhead is not a binding requirement of any of them. Here, in trusty how-to-be-an-alpha-male list form, are 20 aspirational behaviours to help you be better and happier and alpha in a modern way. If you do all of them all of the time then, well, we want to be you.
Call Out Bullshit
This includes, but is not limited to, things like ‘casual’ racism or sexism; racist, gendered or homophobic insults; or commenting on women’s appearances, complimentary or otherwise. It can be hard to be the one who says, “That’s not cool.” But say it anyway. Even if your friend, family member or colleague gets defensive or derisive, they’ll know that you’re right.
Don’t Get Into A Fight
Almost at all costs. In real life, fights don’t right wrongs and restore justice: they result in prison sentences and criminal records, life-changing injuries and one-punch deaths, escalation and retaliation – against you or your loved ones. By all means, think about how you might act if it came to that. Learn martial arts if it makes you feel better and isn’t just an outlet for pent-up anger that would be more healthily released in the company of a therapist. But always walk away. If you feel a violent urge to prove that you’re an alpha male or a ‘real man’, then you’re not really one.
Be First To Smile
Or say hello, put out your hand, introduce yourself, crack a joke, break the ice. Yes, you risk embarrassment and non-reciprocation, but the other person will probably be grateful that you spared them from having to do it themselves, or standing there in silence while you both look intently at your phones and avoid eye contact.
Not in the Jean Claude Van Damme splits-between-trucks sense, although that is pretty damn cool. (And while we’re here, take up yoga or do some regular stretching if you don’t want to be less alpha male, more tin man.) As Bruce Lee said, “The stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” A strong man is strong right up until the point where he breaks: be less rigid and you’ll be more resilient, and able to roll with the metaphorical punches. And don’t be afraid to do a little weeping.
Offer your seat to anybody who needs it more than you: female or male, old or young.
Be The Bigger Man
No, that’s not a reference to any appendage. There will be many instances where people behave badly towards you. Behaving as badly or worse is never the right response. Set an example, whether they choose to follow it or not.
Be An Approachable Leader
If you’re a leader, understand that you’re responsible for the happiness of the people around you. Come in with a face like thunder, ignoring everybody as you close your office door, and they’ll spend the rest of the day anxious and miserable, worrying that they’ve pissed you off even if it’s nothing to do with them, and underperforming at whatever it is that you want them to do.
Conversely, a morsel of positive interaction or feedback will sustain them for days, weeks, even months. People may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. (We forget who said that.)
Be Considerate Of Others
Few people in life actively want to fail, whether in the office or on the five-a-side pitch. So if somebody is struggling, balling them out like a homicidal drill sergeant is unlikely to elicit a miraculous uptick in performance. Maybe try to encourage them, or understand the circumstances behind why they’re failing.
It could be that they don’t have what they need, or know what to do, or have something else going on in their life that’s making things hard. They’re almost certainly not failing because of lack of effort, care or respect. Defying the Hell’s Kitchen cliché, chef Heston Blumenthal never shouts at his staff: if they make a mistake, he believes that’s because he hasn’t trained them properly.
Don’t Make It All About You
Life isn’t just about what you say, or do, or the esoteric sex moves that you bust out. It’s about interacting with the people that are around you, and understanding that they are autonomous beings with their own wants and needs, not extras in the film of your life, NPCs in your personal computer game or Westworld hosts. Recognise and respond to them and those, instead of reading from your script or playbook.
No, scratch that: just listen – whether it’s your partner coming in from work or your mate inviting you to go for a pint. It’s not so much about what they say as the non-verbal cues that will tell you loud and clear that they’ve had a shit day, or that something’s on their mind. Dig deeper and listen some more. And however obvious the solution or what they should have done may seem to you, don’t offer unless it’s asked for. Generally speaking, what people want is a sympathetic ear, not a smart mouth.
Don’t Pretend That You Have All The Answers
Or that you know more than you don’t. Some of the most spectacular fuck-ups occur when people (usually men) overestimate their expertise and won’t admit it or change tack even when it becomes clear that they were wrong. Which it usually does. If you fuck up, then own it, own up and apologise. And never be afraid to ask someone who knows more than you for advice, even if you worry that you’ll look less competent as a result. It’s one of the easiest and most effective life hacks, along with reading books (real ones, not e-books about how to be an alpha male).
Don’t Be The “I Insist” Guy
Offer to pay for her dinner, sure, but let her pay for her own if she insists, and don’t insist back (however gently) more than once. We refer you back to Sylvia Plath: women are not machines that you put kindness coins into until sex falls out. Yes, maybe you just want to do a nice thing with absolutely no strings attached because you’re an upstanding gentleman of the highest moral fibre.
But maybe she doesn’t want you to feel, even on a subconscious level, like she owes you anything. Maybe it’s none of your business what she wants beyond that fact that she wants to pay for her own dinner. So respect that. Trying to pressure someone into something that they don’t want to do is never cool.
Strive For Genuine Equality
That doesn’t just mean making sure that women are heard at work and not shouted over like a TV political ‘debate’, or included in the conversation at all after a lifetime of social conditioning to not be ‘aggressive’. It also means doing your fair share of traditionally gendered roles like childcare, cooking, remembering birthdays, booking holidays.
When was the last time you heard the phrase ‘working father’, or a man being asked how he ‘has it all’? The assumption is that men just have it all, apart from the boring stuff that they don’t want, which is why most women spend an extra five hours a week a doing such unpaid ’emotional labour’.
As columnist Caitlin Moran says, a woman’s life will only be as good as the man she marries: every ball you drop is one that she has to pick up. You want to be an alpha male? Do the dishes and take the bins out without being asked, or expecting a medal (or sex) in return. Suck up any impact on your work like the newest Dyson, because she has to as well. And who knows, maybe she’ll be able to have a good career of her own if you do. Women don’t want to be saved, they wanted to be supported, and that doesn’t mean paying for stuff.
Although in our experience, a cleaner is a very savvy investment.
Hold The Door For Everybody
They can’t very well walk through it if it’s closed, can they? Plus it would be extremely awkward and more than a little dickish if you didn’t.
Be Fit For Purpose
It’s not much use being able to bench-press a car if you can’t sprint for a bus, or run a marathon if you can’t deadlift a shopping bag. Your physical appearance is a consequence of your capacity, so by concentrating on the latter, you’ll enhance the former with the bonus of genuine strength or endurance and without the preening narcissism that comes from gazing too long and longingly into the mirror or at the scales.
You may think that bulging biceps or killer abs will make you more attractive, and well they might, from a distance. But if you become completely self-absorbed in the process, then you’ll make yourself deeply unattractive to be around.
Never Forget Your Own Privilege
And don’t downplay other people’s accounts of prejudicial treatment. One of the main symptoms of privilege is that you can’t see the problem, because it doesn’t affect you.
Be Interested And You’ll Be Interesting
Read, watch and listen to things that give you stuff to talk about. Even better, ask people about their favourite conversation topic: themselves. And take pride in your work and your appearance, whatever they are. That’s more attractive than any particular status or set of clothes.
Appreciate What You Have
Even if it’s not what you’d ideally like. There’s nothing wrong with ambition or hashtag goals, but one of the most pernicious effects of the alpha male myth is that it conditions you to always want what the next guy has. And even if you get that, there’s always someone further up the food chain to envy.
We’re on what Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls a ‘satisfaction treadmill’, and social media has pressed the ‘increase pace’ button. So stop trying to look for the next best thing. Don’t worry what other people think of you, apart from the few who really matter. The real achievement in life is learning to be happy with your lot, comfortable in your skin, faithful. Because if you don’t, then no amount of professional success, material possessions or romantic conquests will ever satisfy you.
Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
The best way to ensure nobody ever laughs at you is to laugh at yourself. People – women and men – want to be around somebody who’s fun.
Sometimes the most alpha thing you can do is not to step up, or over somebody else, but back. A truly confident man is self-assured enough to let someone else take centre stage.