Returning to Yale, I was met with familiarity. Unlike the chaotic and surreal beginning of my Yale journey, the start of sophomore year was different. A summer away in China made Yale seem so distant, but the minute I arrived it felt like I had never left. I know my way around, and I already have friends, extracurriculars, a job and an approximate academic path all lined out before me. However, as I said hello to many people on campus, quickly catching up from the summer, it suddenly dawned on me: Besides my suitemates and a few other friends, I don’t know who most of these people are. I don’t feel a genuine connection to many people at Yale past surface-level conversations.
This summer, I was stripped of my ability to communicate in English and was forced to stumble along in Chinese to understand the new culture I had entered. As confidence in my language abilities increased, I began to speak with as many native Chinese people as I could. With each encounter, my preconceived notions of China slowly washed away as I discovered that having conversations with people in their native tongue, not broken English, allowed for much greater expression.
With nothing to lose, I felt completely comfortable jumping right into deeper, more personal topics, “How have all the recent changes in China affected your life?” “Do you think China should preserve tradition and culture or continue to focus on advancing the economy?” Some of the answers I received were astonishing, not only because of their divergence from my expectations, but also because of their sincerity. I consider life to be a constant seeking of meaning. In China, I felt more alive than ever before.
After returning to Yale, I have struggled to find the same sincerity in conversation. In recent weeks, I have felt a stronger connection to life in speaking to a worker in Bass Café or a local New Haven resident than I have with most Yale students. In these normal, everyday encounters, I don’t feel a need to impress or to place an intellectual shield around myself.
Of course, it is only natural that we adapt to different circumstances in order to fit in — in class, we act knowledgeable (but not overzealous); at parties, we act cool; with distinguished guests, we act formal. Yet, I think we find very few people with whom we feel comfortable being vulnerable, exposing ourselves past the caricatures we paint. Not often do we question one another on the foundations of our personal philosophies and values, or our beliefs and political stances. It’s much easier to repeat similar iterations of conversations we’ve already had than to delve into the unknown. After all, how else do you break the ice than by saying, “Hey, what classes are you taking this semester?”
However, it is those difficult conversations that define us as human beings. Aristotle argues that humans are political animals because of our natural ability to communicate moral concepts with each other. In doing so, we form societies built upon our complex relationships. We cannot survive apart from others, and we only thrive when we are able to effectively discuss the foundation of our communities. Communication should lead to mutual understanding, between individuals, groups and cultures. Misunderstandings lead to false generalizations that can breed conflict and division.
Obviously, everyone only feels comfortable speaking about certain, personal topics with certain people. And it’s impossible and ridiculous to suggest that everyone should never have small talk. After all, Yalies are busy people, and small talk helps us get through the day. Yet, the greatest conversations I remember having at Yale were all beyond the surface. Whenever I am able to connect with people over deeper questions of society and life, I feel that I am living through others. I feel like a political animal in society, and it’s wonderful.
I fear that these conversations are too uncommon on our campus. We often remain in certain intellectual camps, not breaching controversial subjects with our peers or failing to engage with one another’s individual perspectives. In our inability to communicate deeply, we lose the ability to understand and develop. Rather, our ideas about the world are mostly formed through selected interactions that make us feel comfortable. But then, what is the University for, if not to challenge us to think farther than ourselves?
George W. Pierson ’26 GRD ’33, the first official historian of the University, famously described Yale as “at once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends.” Let’s find out what that actually means over dinner next week, no small talk allowed.
Leland Stange is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .