The top post on the r/HumansBeingBros Reddit forum on Thursday morning was the below gif, which shows a woman helping a paralyzed male student out of his wheelchair and leading him across the graduation stage to receive his diploma.
The top posts of all time on the subreddit strike a similar tone: An older man teaching a younger one how to tie his tie before the youngster’s job interview; two beefy gym rats offering safe walks to anyone on their college campus who feels unsafe; a cadre of lawyers posted up in an airport McDonald’s to help free people detained under the Muslim ban; and, coincidentally, four Muslim men who sacrificed their lives to thwart a suicide bomber.
“Damn, these are the ultimate bros. RIP,” reads the top comment on that last post.
It’s the kind of heartwarming Facebook bait you’d usually find on feel-good websites like Upworthy — not what you’d expect from a site that self-identifies as bro, a word normally used to describe shirtless fraternity dudes chest-bumping one another after successfully downing a two-story high beer bong. Not them acting as Good Samaritans.
But HumansBeingBros portrays the bro as a selfless, socially conscious, morally upstanding, politically active citizen of the world, regardless of gender or race — the exact opposite of the more conservative straight white guy typically associated with the word.
I try to suss out the distinction between good bros and bad with the group directly and am quickly corrected by one of the subreddit’s moderators.
“Bruh, you’re conflating ‘dude bro’ with ‘bro,’” writes Elfa82, one of the HumansBeingBros moderators. His response may seem confusing to those unschooled in anthbropology, but it illustrates a subtle yet important aspect of deconstructing bro-dom: The meaning of bro varies person-to-person, even among bros themselves.
“The term bro was originally used to refer to a brother or a friend,” Elfa82 continues. “It wasn’t until recently that people started becoming lazy and have used it to refer to a dude bro. As someone from Southern California, I can assure you that we have always referred to awesome people as bro, bruh or brah.”
His response also suggests bros differ by geography, an idea put forth by Erin Gloria Ryan in her 2014 Jezebel article “The United States of Bros.” The Manhattan bro is more your Wolf of Wall Street type, according to Ryan’s taxonomy, while the Chicago bro is a heavier-set, sports-obsessed beer-drinker working an unglamorous white-collar job (a reflection of his modest Midwestern roots). And that’s different from the Southern Frat Bro, who rocks a side part, dips tobacco and has a “borderline psychotic” relationship with SEC football. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn bro is what you’d normally deem a hipster. “When hipster is ubiquitous, hipster becomes bro.”
While the details may vary by location, Ryan offers an overarching definition of the bro species, which fits squarely with how many people think of the term: “An adult male whose social life revolves around collegiate homosocial bonding and who also presents himself in a way that assimilates to the prevailing aesthetic of men with similar socialization patterns.”
But HumansBeingBros proffers a different definition entirely: A man whose bro-ness is defined not by geography, but his willingness to reach out and help his fellow man bro.
Perhaps the difference in perception stems from a fundamental difference between how bros self-identify and how they come off to others. When men call each other bros, they’re using the term to express solidarity and kinship with one another, says Scott Kiesling, professor of linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh. Just like its usage on HumanBeingBros.
But it’s that unity that makes bro so offputting to non-bros. Bro groups tend to be composed of “upper-middle class, heterosexual white guys,” Kiesling says, making their solidarity seem exclusionary and disenfranchising to anyone who doesn’t fit that demographic (particularly given the current sociopolitical climate).
That’s why bros can see themselves as humane do-gooders while the rest of the world sees them as insufferable douchebags. Indeed, many bros tend to be blissfully unaware of how they’re perceived, Kiesling says. “I can imagine there are some proud bros who are in the category and happy about it. But I imagine most use the term unreflectively and without considering the stereotype it connotes.”
To gain better perspective, I asked my friend Ben what he made of HumansBeingBros, since he is the archetypal Chicago bro Ryan describes. Ben is well aware of the term’s negative connotations: “That ‘bro’ means you’re annoying frat boy who votes Republican and is unbelievably immature.”
This is a misperception, he says. Rather, his definition of what it means to be a bro was more aligned with Elfa82’s. There are certain characteristics that define all bros: self-confidence, a good sense of humor, a high social IQ. But a bro is above all self-assured and assertive. The opposite of a bro isn’t a liberal cuck — it’s a pushover.
Bros can be either conservative or liberal, Ben says, but all of them are brave men of action. And that certainly applies to the all the bromans on HumansBeingBros.