HOLMES: Society’s secrets

Taoisms
annelisa society
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Ah, juniors — it’s that time of year. Letters sealed with wax have been slipped under doors, and several of your senior friends’ new cover photos feature people you have never seen them with before in your life. Perhaps you are beginning to wish that the term “senior society” simply served as a euphemism for “nursing home,” rather than as a trigger for social anxiety.

Tao Tao HolmesThe society tap process is svelte and mysterious, and juniors tumble into it like lemmings off a cliff. I certainly did. A year ago, I had no clue what was going on, but I was titillated by the wedding-quality invites and amused by the requests to show up at 7:03 p.m. (no earlier, no later). But I still had no idea where the letters were coming from, why some people received more than others and why the whole thing had the extraordinary power to dig deep into everyone’s social insecurities and sense of self-worth.

Like many of my fellow lemmings, I jumped into the invisible arms of a senior society I knew virtually nothing about. Somehow, when it comes to this bizarre engagement that consumes six to 10 hours per week of senior year, students hand themselves over, blind and content. As for me, I didn’t know whether to find the passing claims that seniors had found their “best friends” through society a touching exaggeration or a depressing reflection of their previous three years at Yale.

If you’re close with certain seniors, clear information and honest insights on all aspects of society are easily available, but oftentimes seniors are so concerned with cache that they’ll provide you with nothing more than abstruse abstractions. Since few things about society are actually secret, I’d like to help out.

I ended up in your average non-landed, co-ed society. Most societies have between 14 and 18 people, some are single-sex and most meet in improvised spaces on and off campus. Some are more homogenous (racially, socially, socioeconomically and intellectually) than others, while some place greater emphasis on diversity. Societies meet on Thursday and Sunday evenings, and over the course of the year, members of most (though not all) societies give a “bio,” which is a narrative explaining how they became the person they are now. Bios generally last between three and four hours, though on occasion stray into the realms of six or seven (preferably not). This tradition is what most people believe makes society worthwhile; it is an opportunity to reflect on your own background, and also to understand how others have been shaped by circumstances entirely unlike your own — to compare our face-value assumptions with nuanced realities.

Yale is full of phenomenal people (interviewing juniors this past week has been a reminder of that), and ideally through society you’ll get to know a few you weren’t even aware existed. As for those tantalizing tombs, most landed societies allow visitors second semester, so if you know a member you can generally get a tour. At the end of the simultaneously ego-boosting and soul-deflating process of Tap, however, the people you’re with matter far more than the place where you hang.

But society isn’t without its drawbacks. It’s a massive time commitment, which for a while I saw as taking time away from my suite and my club soccer teammates. It also costs money; dues (even for many landed societies) range between $150 and $400 dollars per semester. And realistically, you might not like everyone you’re with, even after you bare your souls. Unsurprisingly, probably the majority of my senior friends felt ambivalent about their societies for the first half of the year. Plenty of seniors dropped out during the fall, and even a few at the beginning of winter. And for lots of good reasons, there are rising seniors who decide not to bother with society altogether.

As for the tap process, most societies allow each member between one and six “taps,” which may go to a best friend, a boyfriend, or a practical stranger — the longest interaction I had with the girl who tapped me was a conversation on a bus ride. It’s luck, it’s chance, it’s random — it’s whatever you want to call it, but it’s not an assessment of who you are as an individual. Because as exclusive as this process may seem, seniors are trying to make society as inclusive as possible; we want juniors to have the chance to be part of this, and every year or two a new society pops up to extend the experience to more people. What I find unfortunate is that this positive intent comes at the expense of a discomforting process.

Of course, certain fantastical rumors will continue to keep everyone’s curiosity piqued. I’ve heard that landed societies receive elaborate catered dinners; Wolf’s Head could probably house half of the New Haven homeless; Skull and Bones has the highest water bill in the city; last year, Scroll and Key flew in two people during Tap. But those are sensational details within a larger, less hyberbolic picture.

I turned out to be a lucky lemming; through my particular society, I gained close friends and valuable perspective. In your last year of Yale, society provides a unique opportunity to step beyond your comfort zone, temper your judgment of others and understand the internal clockwork that makes humans tick at different rhythms.

Tao Tao Holmes is a senior in Branford College. Her columns run on alternate Fridays. Contact her at taotao.holmes@yale.edu .

Comments