Sometime toward the end of my sophomore year, in the brief lull between the last week of classes and the hell-on-earth that is finals week, I had a conversation with one of my dearest friends at Yale. We don’t really see each other often, but when we do, we spend long stretches of time doing nothing together in various places. While eating lunch, we came to critique our day-to-day interactions, and he said something that struck me and has stuck with me to this day: all too often, he said, he felt like he was having the exact same conversations with different people, to the point where he could approximate the other person’s response with fair accuracy, and determine precisely when the conversation would end.
Fast forward to this fall late into the semester. Bleary-eyed after a few hours of reading, I see an email pop into my inbox and open it. Despite the fact that I was nowhere near a good place with my work, I stopped whatever I was doing, sat down and read the whole thing. The email was essentially a rough outline of where my dining hall conversation went. It spoke to Yale’s existence as an institution that pushes people into marketable, professional molds, causing our personal lives and relationships to suffer. The sentiment that the writer expressed was uncomfortably real, despite its packaging as an outwardly incoherent rant.
Indeed, Yale could be seen as a community of individuals. That is to say, we are a community that not only fosters individualism but also discourages the creation and maintenance of interpersonal linkages with depth if they interfere with our personal productivity. It is a school that values, above most things, the ability of a student to function and perform as efficiently as possible, as frequently as possible. It is an institution that expects — demands, even — those who occupy its space to exist in such a way that, in order for them to feel valid, they must be pushing the limits of their personal comfort to produce the highest possible outlet.
We unknowingly adopt the value system of Yale because the favored types of achievements and symbols of status exist tangibly. Fellowships, jobs, board positions and societies position themselves as the sole measures of a good life. The problem is, the value of a good friendship or meaningful interaction does not typically have a material measure — and its value is felt more in its absence than its presence.
This type of thinking — in terms of net costs and benefits — extends itself beyond just simple achievements and performance, and I’d argue that it pervades how we view our relationships. Friendships can begin and exist solely because they provide some other quality outside of the company of the other person. We may grasp for fleeting intimacy in the embrace of a brief hook-up, without really exposing ourselves to the other person, never tarnishing our perfectly packaged, Yale-groomed image.
Why do the content and quality of our interactions leave us so unfulfilled, and what should we do to combat this sinking feeling?
I believe part of it involves self-reflection. It involves simultaneously acknowledging our tacit or active participation in this kind of interaction and attempting to change it when we can. Personally, I know that I’d be lying to myself if I said that I never found myself in encounters that made me feel empty and manufactured. Of course, it is unrealistic to look for a deep connection with every single person. But it is not too absurd to decide to be more explicit and personal with those you want to become close to. It’s not too much to ask to actively try to keep yourself from unnecessarily asking the same questions, using neutral topics like work or the weather as crutches when you don’t know what to say, especially with those people with whom you desire more emotional connection.
I’ve tried to extend my interactions beyond a conversational “safe-zone.” It hasn’t succeeded all of the time; not every person has been receptive. But I do feel like because of this change, I feel human in a way that I previously did not.
Ajua Duker is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.