DINH: Tell me something I don’t know

According to Stanford professor Blakey Vermeule, the allure of gossip can be explained in two ways. First, the idea of credit and trust creates an incentive to collect information about people. Second, hearing about the trials of others allows us to live vicariously through dangerous and risky situations without experiencing any actual harm. These two explanations can be boiled down to a simpler fact: other people can tell us helpful information.

Through socializing, we actually find out crucial survival information. For example, you figure out that the nighttime shuttle exists from a friend who tells a story about returning to the train station late and had no other means of getting back to Yale. Later on, a situation arises in which the nighttime shuttle saves you from a dangerous walk home. Through friends, we can learn jokes that we can repeat to charm potential dates at a party.

I recently joined Yale Wiki, a website launched by Casey Watts ’12 that seeks to gather everything useful for Yalies to know — information learned through trial and error or asking upperclassmen — on one neatly categorized site. The website will have everything from which coffee shop stays open the latest to airport transportation options. If the website is successful and widely used, future freshmen may come in knowing basic information that some seniors now don’t even know.

It’s my third year at Yale and I catch myself so focused on getting homework done that I forget that the goal of homework is learning new things. The best papers and creative writing, I’ve found, display a compelling confidence and command readers’ respect when they are richly undergirded with knowledge, often from many different sources. I’m realizing just how important it is to ask clever questions and recognize high-quality answers.

Outside of classes, I realize I can still focus on gaining knowledge. Whether through overhearing a conversation on the bus, reading the newspaper and magazines or going to a talk, so many things in our daily lives, especially at Yale, are sources of beneficial information.

A lot of us aren’t deliberate enough about how we gain knowledge. If there’s a natural impulse to make a lot of friends so we can learn a lot, there’s an opposite impulse to protect our reputations and not put ourselves out there. A cruel cycle occurs, too: Knowledge makes you confident. Diffident people probably tend to have less knowledge than confident people and so they aren’t appealing to others. This makes sense. Why would you want to waste time talking to someone who isn’t likely to share much when you could talk to someone much more stimulating? But this can be stopped. Shy people especially need to become more confident and interact with more people, creating a positive feedback effect.

However, sometimes socializing can be paralyzing. But some time spent just reading news on the Internet or talking to a family member can at least give you a topic you can be confident talking about. In general, we value and are attracted to people who have information to give and who are interested in getting information. They’re not necessarily the smartest people, but they’re nice, caring people who are easy to talk to and who seem willing to share their knowledge with us.

People may avoid socializing because they figure it’s easy enough to learn what they need through Google. But often, like in the case of the nighttime shuttle, I don’t know what I don’t know. I’d bet that you can’t type into Google “what would broaden my horizons” and have the results screen be more surprising or memorable than meeting someone who’s passionate about allosaures and has done digs in five different countries. What kind of information we gain is self-selecting — we choose classes and activities that already interest us, we make friends with similar people, we ride buses going toward the same destination — but I think only by putting ourselves out there are we likely to diversify our knowledge.

Facts are like ingredients, and we can aggregate tons of them. But until we “bake” pieces of information — mix them together, produce a new thing, and show it to other cooks who may be able to suggest spices to add — they’re useless. Too often at Yale, learning is an aimless activity. But I think our grades and our spirits would benefit from engaging more with the world around us.

Catherine Dinh is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at catherine.dinh@yale.edu.