How to Discern a Man’s Character

“What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”
– A.A. Milne

In some ways, dating relationships are like a three-legged table: one leg is attraction, another is compatibility, and the third is character. If one of these three is lacking, the table will be unable to stand, or – in your best case scenario – have an irritating wobble. What I want to talk about today is character. We treat character as almost an afterthought, something to pay attention to only if there is something glaringly wrong. (And then in some cases we ignore or excuse clear evidence of poor character. “Sure he got drunk and peed on a squad car, but he was having a stressful day. It could happen to anyone.”) I think that we need to reverse this process. Bad character should be a deal breaker, yes. As this Psychology Today article points out, there are some serious red flags we all need to pay attention to. But I think the standard needs to change: if you can’t identify clear evidence of good character, that should be a deal breaker too.

Now I know that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, areas where they excel and areas where they struggle. Nobody is perfect. I’m not saying anybody should be looking for shortcomings and then hold them against that person. There is a world of difference between having a weakness you are working on improving and a habitual failing you are comfortable with. What you should be on the lookout for are patterns of behavior that show that there will lead to conflict in the relationship. (Also, I should point out that this isn’t merely a shared values thing: shared values fall under compatibility rather than character. If you prefer to abstain from drinking but they don’t, it’s not a character issue for them to drink a beer.)

The question then becomes, how do we spot these patterns? When you’re dating someone, they tend to be on their best behavior in the short term. But we tend to leak this information in subtle ways, and that goes way beyond how we treat our waiters. So here are some shot-in-the-dark, totally not comprehensive, wildly guessing ideas on how we can determine a person’s character. I’m going to focus on men since I feel I have a better grasp on how men reveal themselves than women do, but I suspect most of these items apply to both sexes.

1) What sort of friends does he keep? How does he treat them, serve them, and interact with them? The quality of relationships a man maintains reveals what he values, whether he can be counted on when the chips are down, and whether or not he’s capable of healthy boundaries.

2) How does he treat women he doesn’t consider to be potential romantic/sexual partners? There is a neat division when it comes to men. There are the men that only treat a woman well if he eventually wants to sleep with her, and then there are the men who don’t think their romantic interest should determine how they treat people. If chivalry, politeness, respect – or whatever else – aren’t ubiquitous, then they are imaginary.

3) How does he spend his free time? I’m not going to rail against passive entertainment: sometimes that’s necessary. But that shouldn’t be what someone spends all, or even a majority, of their free time doing. Nick Offerman has this to say: “One of my tips is get a hobby and … (do) something with your hands, so that at the end of two hours you have a tangible result to your time.” This might be a little flowery, but I think that we should be in constant pursuit of something. Be it to become a better woodworker, a more learned individual, a faster runner, or decent cook, dedicating your spare time to some pursuit is a good thing to do. After two hours, or weeks, or months, or years, what does he have to show for his time?


4) How does he cope with hardship and adversity? There are some men who absolutely shine when trouble comes their way. They rise to the occasion. Other men hide until trouble passes. And everything in between.

5) From this point forward, what is his life’s trajectory? We all face successes and setbacks. What’s more telling than short-term achievement or disappointment is what happens next. Having been promoted, is he now content to rest on his laurels? Or does he see it as an opportunity to put himself in a position to take another step further down the road? Likewise, when things don’t go his way does he give up? Or does he regroup and continue working hard? In short, is he planning for the future? Is he driven, or is he complacent? This applies to all areas of life, not just to a career.

Again, I don’t think this list is comprehensive. I don’t even necessarily think that it’s practical. But what I do think is that we must start raising our standards. A lot of heartache can be avoided by placing more emphasis on character – and acting on the character issues we notice – than we do to this point.



Gus: We didn’t find Fong, Driggs did.
Shawn: It’s all semantics, Gus.
Gus: It’s not semantics at all.
Shawn: Note to self: look up the word semantics.

— Psych

Shawn and Gus

There are two ways to look at the study of beauty. The first we can ascribe to the Scottish philosopher David Hume (though it no doubt precedes him): Beauty is subjective. When we find something to be beautiful, there is nothing inherent in that object that makes it so; rather, it is our perception of it, colored by our tastes and personality and maybe our ability to see, that makes it beautiful. Call this the “Humeian View.” The second we will ascribe to another Scottish philosopher, Lord Kames. According to Kames, beauty is reducible to a set of rules. If something is beautiful, it is because it approaches identifiable proportions, colors, and shapes. Predictable ratios are involved. To Kames, we can measure and quantify what we find to be aesthetically pleasing. This we will call the “Kamesian View.”
Da Vinci
If you are to explain this paradigm to someone, I think most people would describe themselves as Humeian. I would not. I agree fully with Kames: we can break down and understand the things we find pleasing to our senses. We understand the ratios that make a major chord sound, well, major. We can grasp the notion that there is a balance at play between salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami that reconcile to a singular, delicious flavor.
Now, calling myself Kamesian does not mean I think everyone should be able to agree on what is beautiful. The world is far more complex than that. When you really step back and look at it, though, you’ll notice that almost everyone can be divided into groups based on what pleases us. Rather than a random distribution of likes, almost everyone adheres to small, coherent clusters. This is why there are only a handful of musical genres instead of, say, thousands. (That and marketing.) And even then, the principles beneath those genres tend to be similar. One person may like hip hop and another folk, but when you break it down they operate by the same rules. We don’t seem to be built to see just anything as beautiful.
I’ve embraced this philosophy in the way I think about everything. (If you’ve read any of my blog before, that should probably be self-evident.) If it exists, there is a way to gain a rigorous understanding of it. Maybe you believe some things cannot – or SHOULD not – be subject to such analysis. But this is the lens by which I see the world. I cannot and will not tell anyone they should not hold the Humesian view. Nor should anyone tell me my Kamesian outlook is fundamentally wrong. Agree to disagree?

One View of Friendship

“Distinctions drawn by the mind are not necessarily equivalent to distinctions in reality.”
–Thomas Aquinas

I have always been a stickler for precise terminology. (I took the Strengths Finder assessment last night and “stickler” wasn’t a possibility. If it had been, it’s safe to say that would have been at least three of my top five.) Being able to make subtle distinctions can be an important tool for arriving at new insights. Just ask Isaac Newton …or Todd Akin.
One such distinction I have been forced to make recently has been between people I describe as my friends — of whom there are only few — and those I enjoy and get along with but haven’t laid claim to that status. People invariably feel slighted by that distinction, but I am not alone in making it. CS Lewis, in describing the difference between companions and friends, said,

Companionship … is often called Friendship, and many people when they speak of their “friends” mean only their companions. But it is not Friendship in the sense I give to the word. By saying this I do not at all intend to disparage the merely Clubbable relation. We do not disparage silver by distinguishing it from gold.

With that in mind, here are the ways I segment and section “friends.”

Weak ties I don’t like the word “acquaintances,” but this is basically what is meant by the expression. You know that guy who’s your Facebook friend but, to quote Shawn Spencer, you would actively avoid on the street? That is a weak tie. In his excellent essay, Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted, Malcolm Gladwell explains, “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties…. (They are)a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with.” In short, a weak tie is someone you know — and may even like — but do not actively try to involve in your life with any sort of regularity.

Companions These are the people with whom you share common interests and values and make an effort to incorporate into your life. CS Lewis described companionship as the matrix of friendship, that thing which is distinct from friendship but necessary for it to exist. Most of your voluntary interactions are with people in this category. You can have deep affection for some people, share secrets with them, trust them and serve them. And yet they will never spring readily to mind when someone says, “Hey, what five people do you most want to spend your birthday with?” Does that give you an intuitive understanding of this distinction?
Now, think of the right half of a Bell curve. Oh, you don’t want to? Let me just show you, then:

If the blue represents weak ties, the red companions, then the orange is for friends. (Ignore the percentages.)

Friends Friendship is rightly described by Lewis as its own unique, wholly unnatural, form of love. Whereas the other loves have some merit or survival value on their own, friendship does not. Some argue that friendship is just a transformation of another form of love. Lewis has a ready reply: “Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.”
A lot can be said on the distinction between companions and friends, but I don’t want to belabor the point or introduce some crude measure. My goal was to make a distinction. But if my hand was forced, I would say it is companionship combined with an overlap, the unspoken agreement that I understand you and you understand me in a way that most everyone else does not and cannot. Most of my friendships have had a singular moment where the transformation from mere companions to friends was made. I would encourage you to think on yours and see if you can identify similar moments. Were they awakenings of that form, or something else entirely?

(Note: I call this a prerequisite because a lot of the things I plan to touch on — dating, whether men and women can really be friends — rely on these distinctions.)