“Tell us about your best friend.” “Tell us about your favorite Yale memory.” “Tell us about something you don’t care about.”
I spent the Saturday afternoon before spring break in Woodland Café on Chapel Street multitasking — studying while unintentionally eavesdropping on a secret society interview being conducted by two seniors at the table next to me. The junior being interviewed was so earnest, speaking quickly and a little nervously. He so plainly wanted his interviewers to like him. Based on the somewhat dismissive comments the two seniors made to each other after he left, I doubt that junior will receive a tap offer.
I’ve been thinking about secret societies a lot since I left Woodland Café that day.
Senior societies have the potential to offer many genuinely good things to their members. The privilege of spending two evenings per week learning about and getting to know a diverse group of Yalies, whom you otherwise may never have met, can engender closeness, camaraderie and new and meaningful friendships. Societies can offer the sense of belonging in a new community, good conversations and group text messages, free drinks and meals, the chance to have a uniquely “Yale” experience and an opportunity for introspection through the weekly “bios.” Sometimes they provide a tomb, a prestigious alumni network and fancy events.
All of these elements are valuable. The emphasis that societies place on forming friendships and having thoughtful discussions is truly unique. At best, I imagine learning about a diverse group of people could make us more aware of others’ struggles and triumphs, demons and values — in other words, more aware of our shared humanity.
But I do not believe that these elements are the driving forces behind why we care about secret societies. I think we all care — at least I know this is true for me — primarily because being chosen for a selective group confirms our sense of worth. Sure, we may be excited about the friendships that societies could foster. But there are other equally good venues at Yale for that. The potential for friendship is not the main reason why societies are intriguing and a hot topic of conversation. They’re exciting because being chosen makes us feel flattered, sought-after, special. We’re human, and so we want to be wanted. Even if some of us receive tap offers and turn them down, it’s hard for me to imagine that any of us would not feel good to know that we were considered “worth getting to know” enough to be selected in the first place.
But aye, here’s the rub. The too often unspoken secret of secret societies is that they make some of us feel wanted, special and worthy precisely because they make others of us, even if only momentarily, feel unwanted, anxious and lame. The only point of a society being “secret” is that some of us are in and some are not.
And so, in the spirit of society interviews, I ask myself two questions.
Do I too want to receive wax-sealed invitations for secret societies? Yes.
But is the excitement that I would get from being selected and part of the whole system worth it to me if the process causes other juniors — even just one other junior — unnecessary pain?
I think about that eager boy in Woodland Café, and I know my answer to that question.
Viveca Morris is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at email@example.com.