Why Your Fraternity’s Manhood and Your Tight Brotherhood Really Matter

by Matt Mattson

This is important. Like, really, really important for all fraternity leaders to read and understand. It gets at the core of our problems and our opportunities. It is about our very reason for being. And it might shock you.

Brotherhood. This word is tossed around by fraternities more than ping pong balls and corn hole bags. And its meaning has become almost as pointless. It has become a filler word that substitutes for a full understanding of what our organizations are actually about. Why should someone join? Brotherhood! What do you love most about your organization? Brotherhood! What makes your organization better than the others? We have the most Brotherhood!

But what does that word (brotherhood) actually mean? I’ll tell you one thing I know 100% for sure… BROTHERHOOD IS NOT FRIENDSHIP. When I ask fraternity members to explain that word to me, often they’ll say, “Like, really close friendship that is like an unbroken bond.” Forever friends who share values.” “Something beyond friendship.”

I’ll be honest, I don’t think that’s even close.

If brotherhood was just “like friendship, but better,” why would anyone ever join? If the primary offering of our organizations is really tight friendship, we would have no reason to exist — plenty of people outside of Greek Life have better friendships than you share with your members. And, if friendship (a.k.a. brotherhood) is the primary offering of your organization, by definition aren’t you actually and quite literally “buying your friends”?

I believe that fraternities have always existed for one reason, and that one reason is more important today than it has ever been. It isn’t friendship. It isn’t even service/philanthropy. It isn’t leadership either. Fraternities exist to guide college guys who have chosen to transform from childhood into adulthood — from boys into men. 

Becoming an initiated member of a fraternity is a life choice — not to join a fun buddy club — but to join adulthood, to move from boy to man, to cross over from an age of irresponsibility and selfish desires into an age of responsibility and impact. Brotherhood is the bond that is built through the shared struggle of becoming men.

Broth-er-hood: (noun) The shared struggle of becoming a man.

A lot of guys do not choose to become adults for many years. Some choose to stay in this prolonged adolescence where acting childish is a way to avoid both the responsibilities and opportunities of adulthood. But fraternity, when it’s done right, is a formal CHOICE to become a man instead of a child. That choice is a powerful one. It is quite literally celebrated in your initiation ceremonies. You take an oath to live as the men who’ve come before you have determined is fitting of men who wear your letters.

And here’s the problem. The very purpose of our organization is to proclaim adulthood — to say, “I am now a man,” yet we’ve watered down the idea of brotherhood so much that it now seems to exclaim childishness. When we sell “friendship” as the primary offering, we get buddies who like each other and like to have fun together. Then we call liking each other and having fun together brotherhood. We take all the air out of our very purpose — the one thing that makes us beautiful organizations. And this reduced meaning that we’ve attached to the word brotherhood becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of irresponsibility and childishness.

It is time for real fraternity leaders to reclaim this word. Brotherhood is not about choosing buddies, it’s about choosing manhood. 

Fraternity is not about leadership, service, and philanthropy — these are wonderful ways that we demonstrate the choice we make to be productive, responsible, values-driven adults. Fraternity is not about friendship — though you’ll certainly make some of the best friends of your life (you’ll have brothers that you’re not actually friends with too, that’s o.k.) Fraternity, I believe, is about that choice each of us makes at some point to be a man, to be an adult, and to no longer be a child.

Here’s another way to think about it. Fraternity recruitment = men recruiting men to become better men. That literally might be the most succinct explanation of our bizarre and ancient organizations. Yet we rarely talk productively (without accusation or blame) about what it even means to be a man anymore. So, it should be no surprise that our fraternities are struggling with expressions of manhood, and that we’ve chosen to think of brotherhood not as something important and powerful as we come of age, but as buddy-time.

The elements that define manhood in 2017 are necessarily different than they were in decades past. That rapidly moving target, however, creates uncertainty, a low likelihood of success, and in turn, a reversion to the lowest common denominator of what “be a man” means. What’s worse, is that after a 19-year-old guy feeling pressured to recruit for a “top tier fraternity” gives in to the trashy side of man-ness in exchange for the recruitment numbers he feels pressured to get, we blame him for reinforcing the “fratty” corner we put him in.

We (undergraduate leaders, educators, and professionals) have to talk about and demonstrate humble, confident, inclusive, modern manhood in fraternity. The fact that this isn’t currently our default might be the fraternity industry’s biggest threat. Fraternities were founded to help guys transform into men, but it almost seems like we’re afraid of naming that purpose because we know some of our alumni think “be a man” means some terrible things.

Fraternities must reclaim the word “brotherhood.” And fraternities must reclaim the word “manhood.” 

I’m proud that our recruitment educators at Phired Up Productions are considering the necessary intersection of modern manhood and fraternity growth. (Herehere, and here are some past blog posts that connect the two). These are two sides of the same conversation. The last thing our chapter leaders need (the guys who are trying their damnedest to do this fraternity thing right) is to be told that they’re too manly or not manly enough.