Before starting my freshman year, I went on a Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trip through the White Mountains. After a couple days of icebreakers, brutal ascents and meals in which we tried to figure out how many condiments we could reasonably stuff into tortillas, my seven prefreshmen peers and I had gotten to know each other well. Well enough, in fact, that when our FOOT leaders asked us to give “hometowns” — to tell each other, over the remainder of the trip, our life stories — we accepted with enthusiasm. Usually this would happen around the campfire each evening, one person speaking for an hour or so while the rest of the group listened.
Presented, performed vulnerability is ubiquitous at Yale. It’s there in those glossy brochures, advertising a student body that’s unabashedly nerdy and “real.” It’s in my class’s freshman Facebook group, where we were encouraged to tell 1,300 people we’d never met about our quirks. And it’s in the very public ways we project our closeness with each other, in person and on social media. Even though it didn’t take me long to sense that a lot of this was fake, it felt strange to call it that, given how “unfake” it all purports to be.
In the woods, this kind of public sharing made a little more sense. Mutual exhaustion, talking about freshman-year hopes and fears, triumph when we conquered a peak, working together to assemble our camp and sleeping in close proximity under a rain-soaked tarp: these had all created a real atmosphere of mutual trust. The stories my fellow group members told were deeply moving, intimate narratives. I was able to share information that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable sharing even a few days earlier; we all were.
Yet I still noticed a collective performance anxiety that ran counter to what the tradition was trying to achieve: honesty, community and togetherness. As the time for me to tell my own hometown approached, I felt an increasing ambient pressure to “make it good,” to bare my soul in a way my audience would find compelling. The nature of the space we’d created meant that I was turning my story into something for their consumption, even if it would bring us closer together. This frightened me.
Even with those we trust most deeply — our parents, our loved ones, our closest friends — true vulnerability is dangerous. It requires absolute trust, and an unwavering commitment from all parties to make the interaction safe. When these conditions are met, it can be groundbreaking. But when they are not, a kind of substitute closeness can often take shape. Friends may hug when they see each other, laugh at each other’s jokes, “tell each other things” and yet, for all that, they may still harbor resentments, fears or “pain points” that they have no idea how to discuss. If these insecurities remain unmentionable, such feelings necessarily limit how close a relationship can become.
Why does this happen? In large part, it’s hard to ascribe a cultural cause — we’re as open as our individual pasts have dictated is safe. But there are also factors unique to this university, and to its culture, that prohibit true vulnerability. In particular, there’s the performativity of many of our social spaces, where we present carefully crafted, compelling personal narratives that are flattened depictions of our true selves. This is not unique to large group settings; especially at the start of our Yale careers, when we’re still all trying to impress each other, it can trickle down to even our one-on-one conversations. The result is a vulnerability without true vulnerability — an expectation of openness that comes without a protective framework.
It’s certainly not my job to dictate what kinds of connections people should forge for themselves. But Yale’s cultural climate makes this kind of closeness (for those who want it) extremely hard to access, or even to conceive of as possible. If we could teach ourselves to expect less posturing and more honesty from our acquaintances, our friends and our partners, we would be on track to create a climate that is more open and welcoming to all who enter it — freshman and senior alike.
I was lucky enough to have a FOOT group who listened to each other’s stories kindly and without judgment. But not every prefrosh is; and regardless, the performance anxiety often only gets worse when we step on campus.
Henry Robinson is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .