Yale is tribal. Generally speaking, we eat, drink and come to know that small sliver of Yale that resembles us, that tribe with which we feel most comfortable.
Some tribes are based on residential colleges. Others are extracurricular. Yet others coalesce around majors or more classic tribal qualities: ethnicities, nationalities or religions. Each of us may travel in more than one tribe, but we usually spend nearly all of our social time in a series of small, well-defined circles.
Too bad. As important as close friendships are, it’s also a good idea to explore other tribes. There are over 5,000 undergraduates on campus, representing a raucous multiplicity of perspectives and understandings of the world. Through no fault of our own, we often seem to settle into social habits and miss out on a broader experience.
Tribalism can and should be tempered. There are a few simple ideas with which Yale should experiment.
First, a table in Commons and a table in a central dining hall — Saybrook? — should be designated Chance Encounter tables. The rules are simple: You can only sit down at a Chance Encounter table if you would otherwise be eating alone (so no going with friends), and upon sitting down you must immediately introduce yourself to everyone at the table. These rules would be explained on a poster-sized table tent in the middle of each Chance Encounter table.
Would this work to reduce Yale’s tribalism? Hard to say. The best case scenario is curious Yalies converging on Chance Encounter tables and striking friendships that would not otherwise have formed. If 1 percent of undergrads try a Chance Encounter every day, the tables will rarely be empty.
Of course, 50-odd undergrads would soon exhaust the novelty of each other’s company. But a quarter of Yale’s undergraduate population graduates and is replaced every year, so Chance Encounter would get an annual infusion of fresh faces.
Another approach would rely on technology. Yalies may not want to insert themselves into a table of strangers, but they might be excited to have one-on-one lunches with random students. If so, a software program could pair interested students and assign meeting times and locations.
The program — let’s call it Random Lunch — could be entirely e-mail-based. If I have a free lunch on Tuesday and want to meet a random Yalie, I would send an e-mail to email@example.com with the subject line “Tuesday 12:30.” I could also list preferred dining halls in the body of the e-mail. When the system finds someone with whom to pair me, we’ll both get e-mails introducing us to each other and telling us the location of our Tuesday meeting.
Random Lunch has a little more overhead than Chance Encounter, but the Yale College Council or the Dean’s Office could easily underwrite its implementation. The system is quite straightforward and should not cost much.
Would Random Lunch be worth the investment? Random pairings will not click 100 percent of the time, but beautiful friendships can and do emerge from chance pairings. I know from personal experience: My girlfriend and I shared our first meal after randomly meeting while locked out of the Yale Club of New York (turns out they shut down for July Fourth).
The system could include features to increase the success of pairings. For example, students could specify what sorts of people they are interested in getting to know, stipulating details like majors. If automated scheduling proves too tricky, the system could just put students in touch and let them schedule a meal on their own.
If we implemented those features, here is how the system would work. I send the following e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org:
Subject: sign me up!
Body: I’m interested in meeting someone majoring in the hard sciences.
And I would get the reply:
Subject: Re: sign me up!
Body: REQUEST RECEIVED: Hard Sciences (Sc). TO CANCEL, SIMPLY REPLY TO THIS E-MAIL.
After a day or two, I would (hopefully) get the following e-mail:
To: Justin Kosslyn, John Smith
Body: Justin and John, I’d like to introduce you to each other. Justin is a computer science major, and John is a biology major. You might get along. Try lunch!
John and I would go from there. Sometimes neither party would engage and no meal would happen, but I bet that lunch would happen more often than not.
Between Chance Encounter and Random Lunch, curious Yalies would have an easier time non-awkwardly venturing beyond their tribes.
It is distinctly possible that none of my suggestions will work. But if Yale is to produce leaders who can see the world through many eyes, it is worth experimenting with such structures.
Justin Kosslyn is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.