Sociologists who from time to time peer into the American psyche invariably describe a selfish, avaricious people. Yet clearly they've failed to probe far enough, for tactless one-upmanship is only the most visible layer of our culture.
Deep down, we're a people more inclined to self-immolation than self-love. Who among us hasn't dreamt, as a kid, of laying down a bunt in the seventh game of the World Series? Or working as a yes-man for an egomaniac boss? We've produced the likes of Ted Sizemore and Zeppo Marx and Izzy Stradlin: charitable types willing to perform grunt work while others grab public acclaim. American dollars support struggling former Soviet republics, needy populations in Africa and Halliburton. Even our idioms--"got your back," for example--suggest that a spirit of giving, rather than crass acquisitiveness, permeates our very nature.
It took the slick marketing crew working for Coors to expose this thread of our national consciousness. Now this week's Burning Question explores another aspect of American munificence.
The wingman epitomizes everything good and decent in American life. The term defines those who sacrifice an evening to assist a friend's amorous adventures. While his buddy engages an attractive woman, the wingman provides support.
"A good wingman understands that it's not about individual achievement," says Kurt Mosley, Dallas sage of the consumption arts. "It's about the purpose of the mission."
Call him the John Stockton of love. When two men venture into the night they become a team, and therefore subject to rules affecting the greater good. "The wingman should not try to out-cool his buddy in the presence of the hottie," agrees Chris O'Hagan, Dallas aficionado of all things alcoholic. "The A material should be saved for his turn at bat."
As the Coors commercial says:
This chick's rockin' your bro on the dance floor.
But she's towing an anchor
A junior investment banker
Who's talkin' about herself and not much more.
So buy her a beer,
It's the reason you're here,
You're taking one for the team,
so your buddy can live the dream.
This week's Burning Question, however, is concerned with more than the existence of pre-carnal support. The topic assumes that, however willing, some good-natured Americans just don't possess the proper skills for the role.
So what attributes make for an ideal wingman?
"That depends," Will Morgan, bartender at Champps in Las Colinas, waffles. "If I'm ugly, I want a good-looking wingman so I can pick up the scraps. If I'm dumb, I want an intelligent wingman. You must bring balance." When allowed the luxury of selecting someone for the explicit purpose of support, in other words, wise denizens of the night search for complementary features. Implemented with forethought, the wingman allows for some otherwise impossible status-jumping--a good-looking woman clinging to a less than stellar man.
"I remember from psych in college that people end up in sustained relationships with others of similar attractiveness," says Matthew, bartender at The Dralion and poet laureate of Dallas nightlife. "So the issue with a wingman is this: Does the wingman make you look better, or worse?"
That's the theory, of course. Men patrolling Dallas-area bars typically demand more fundamental attributes from their flying partners: a high tolerance for alcohol; a willingness to spend a little cash; the stamina to see things through; nonverbal communications skills; and the ability to bullshit.
A wingman, explains Dan, drinking one night at The Quarter, "keeps the conversation going, doesn't let things sputter."
At work here is an ethos of cooperation rather than competition. For this reason, barhoppers often seek married companions for an evening excursion. "Married men are the best wingmen, because he's out for a good time," says Hai, hanging out in Nikita's dim environs. "That's the key. If you're having a good time, women are attracted to that."
Unless men wander out with a married man in tow, the second-fiddle role is determined more by circumstance than planning. "The wingman strategy is a slight variation on the cooperative pack hunting techniques seen in many species of higher mammals," O'Hagan points out. The prey, the surroundings and other factors dictate who strikes the killing blow--particularly when an intended target must be separated from her own pack.
"The wingman, when properly implemented, should increase scoring opportunities for one simple reason: He can keep the hottie's friend otherwise occupied so that she cannot sabotage the buddy's efforts," O'Hagan says.
Ah, the wingwoman, natural enemy to the urban male hunter.
"The wingwoman, that's the biggest problem," says Adam Salazar, bartender at Nikita. "You're successful; you're about to take her home, and her fucking friend will talk her out of it."
Unlike the wingman, women often set out specifically to protect friends from trouble. At a well-chosen moment they express boredom and request a ride home, or point out a gentleman's flaws or shoot down the wingman as he steps in to assist. She is Baron von Richthofen with blonder hair and larger breasts.
Under perfect conditions, no one requires the services of a wingman. Their skills, however, are invaluable when trouble flares up.
And in times of crisis, well, that's when American men and women are at their best. Consider Thelma and Louise, O.J. Simpson and Al Cowling, Tom DeLay and the Homeland Security Department. "An ideal wingman is someone that believes that the role involves reciprocity," O'Hagan explains. "Thus if the wingman has to jump on the live grenade in the form of the depressed, misanthropic friend of the hottie, he does so because his buddy will do the same for him next time"--which sounds reasonable enough to stand as our answer to this week's Burning Question.
Of course, it could be something much simpler, or so claims John, drinking at Nikita: "He can talk to girls, and has lower standards than you."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.