Yalies are obsessed with small talk, though we don’t start out that way. It takes a few weeks until the freshmen pick up on the unique idioms that characterize what I affectionately dub “Yale-speak.” Pretty soon, they’ll also become masters of the art of prolonging inane conversations and masking our latent insecurities. For those who aren’t privy to the lingo just yet, here’s a brief primer on what sorts of phrases are acceptable when you run into a Yalie whom you vaguely know on Cross Campus:
“Hey, how are classes; what are you taking?” — this is the quintessential opening. The correct response here is to list the most difficult or work-intensive class you’re currently taking. This way, both of you can commiserate over the struggles of writing papers, finishing problem sets and tackling mountains of reading.
“How are you?” — There is only one answer to this one: “I’m so busy,” perhaps with an “OMG” for good measure. If you really want to be edgy, you can even list a club or two that is weighing you down with work.
And my personal favorite: “Let’s get a meal” (along with its common addendum, “But actually though!”) — If you don’t say this before leaving, it’s almost rude. It’s highly important that you intimate your willingness to pencil in the person you’re talking to for coffee three weeks from now. Never mind the fact that you probably don’t have his or her phone number and will have no recollection of this interaction 30 minutes later.
I’m not against small talk. Sometimes there really isn’t much to say, and it’s nice to have some go-to phrases to keep conversations from becoming awkward. I do think, however, that our responses say quite a bit about the social atmosphere we’ve created on campus. We have a certain obsession with appearing successful or, more accurately, looking like our calendars are full. The number of club-related obligations we have has turned into a sort of heuristic to help us determine our social status.
I find it highly problematic that at a school filled with people passionate about so many different subjects, we can’t come up with anything more creative to say than “I’m busy.” We define ourselves by the extracurricular activities we join and the classes we take. Many of us have designed our course schedules around a cappella, athletic teams or student publications; we’re willing to sit through hours of practice or dedicate our weekends to getting better at activities because we’re just that in love with what we do. Yet we leave our small talk at two little words.
Not enough Yalies, myself included, are willing to just relax for a while. There should be no reason why our small talk invariably revolves around how little time we have. Most of us aren’t really so busy that spending a couple of minutes talking with candor about our lives would be cumbersome. When we say “Let’s grab a meal” to one another, it’s unfortunate that many of us have no intention of doing so. But we say it anyway, mostly because it makes us seem close. We create this illusion of intimacy because we don’t have the patience for actual intimacy. Actual intimacy is too hard. It takes effort and, more importantly, time.
We can do better. If we’re willing to stop and chat when we see an acquaintance on the street, we may as well make those conversations interesting. On the other hand, if we’re simply talking to one another out of social necessity (which I highly suspect is the case), we need not extend trite invitations to dinner or pretend that we’re actually willing to discuss what’s going on in our lives. It’s insincere and it creates a culture where people prioritize productivity over happiness. It sets us up for a rat race that never ends and we can never win.
But most dangerously, the phrase insulates us from the realization that we’re neglecting potentially meaningful relationships in favor of expressing what is little more than a humblebrag. In our minds, we associate busyness with self-worth. We must be so driven and so talented if we’re busy. It means we hold high positions in demanding extracurriculars or are smart enough to get into the most challenging seminars.
If we substitute these cliches for genuine conversation, perhaps we’ll be forced to confront these harsh realities. I don’t expect everyone will drop their third club or fifth course, but perhaps a few of us will make time for one another. At the very least, it’ll make Overheard at Yale more interesting.
Shreyas Tirumala is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at email@example.com .