Without Old Blue code, Yale students flounder socially

I spent enough time reading online message boards last week to come to this conclusion: most viewers of “America’s Next Top Model” think its producers made Tory Marshman ’09 look bad. What but unkind editing, they reasoned, could explain such absurdities as her question “I got into the top history program at Yale University and I can’t walk down a runway?”

The quotation sounds ridiculous, of course, not only because walking can’t be that difficult but also because the two are wholly unrelated. No one actually thinks that someone smart enough to attend Yale also knows how to do everything else. In fact, the far more pervasive assumption is that Yale students know very little about life outside the ivory tower. The word the Top Model judges used for Tory when they first selected her for the show was “awkward” — an appropriate label, as Yalies use the word to describe practically everything. When students attempt to explain why awkwardness pervades Yale life, the presumed dichotomy between “book smarts” and “street smarts” is bound to come up.

But the assumption that academic knowledge and interpersonal knowledge are substitute goods is fairly ridiculous. Just as there’s no reason to assume that we know everything, there’s no reason to assume we know nothing. In fact, far from being an accurate descriptor of Yale as a whole, “awkwardness” doesn’t even mean the same thing each time it is used.

At Yale, “awkward” can describe either interactions — from those with ex-boyfriends to those with deans — or people. While it is true that awkward people are more likely to find themselves in (or create) awkward situations, the kind of discomfort the two create is fundamentally different. Awkwardness as a permanent trait connotes a kind of interpersonal obliviousness, a failure to pick up on even the most obvious social cues. Awkward interactions, on the other hand, are often generated by a lack of those same cues; when caught in a compromising position, we simply do not know how to respond.

While there are plenty of routine events at Yale, from sections to dance parties, most of these provide no prescriptions regarding how students ought to act — making awkward situations inevitable and awkward people uneducable. Events that demand particular behaviors are often better described as rituals than regular occurrences. The overwhelming fascination with ritual at Yale — evidenced most recently by the News’ articles on “initiation rites” that filled Scene’s front page — may in part stem from the envy felt toward practices that do provide participants with firmly delineated roles, giving meaning to experience without forcing everyone to “figure out” how to respond to cues.

The communities that engage in these rituals often seem to have less awkwardness between members than is common throughout campus as a whole; the presence of a stronger social structure does provide some guidelines as to appropriate and inappropriate behavior. But these communities are marginal and usually considered “weird” by others, who view such social codes as stuffy or bizarre without comprehending the ease of interaction they facilitate.

Many of these rituals were more integrated into campus life 50 or more years ago, which makes sense given that Old Yale was itself a community with a stronger social code than we currently have. The homogeneity of the student body enabled the old-guard WASP values and practices of students’ homes to become those of their school as well, so conventions of speaking, dining and living were fairly well-established.

Of course, this comfortable uniformity was jettisoned for a reason; I know very few people who would argue, for example, that eliminating the awkwardness of romantic entanglement is important enough that we should ban female students from Yale. But while the old values have clearly been replaced with new ones, nothing has come to fill the social void.

This is not to say that nothing could. Striving for tolerance and sensitivity in every interaction, for example, could eventually produce a set regime of social codes and mores. But Yalies have not embraced this, instead paying lip service to the ideas while lampooning their particular manifestations as “political correctness.” It’s true that political correctness — or any social code — should not be totalizing and should sometimes be transgressed. But this doesn’t mean that no social code should be adopted at all.

If we refuse to adopt a new code of behavior, while simultaneously resisting a return to the old one, we don’t doom ourselves to debauchery or disrespect; common sense, the oldest social code of all, usually takes care of those. But we should embrace the inevitable awkwardness along with it. Neither book smarts nor street smarts can save us from the perils of falling into situation after situation without any idea of how we are expected to behave.