The summer before my first year at Yale, an older friend gave me a piece of advice: “The hardest religious challenge of college isn’t wanting to do homework on the Sabbath or eat at delicious-looking non-kosher restaurants. It’s that you’ll be standing near someone you want to make friends with and the only thing to talk about will be a third person across the room,” she said.
In my two years here so far, this has proved true. As I fill my life with academic work, extracurriculars and even religious commitments, my interpersonal behavior is the thing that most often slips through the cracks. It’s not just avoiding gossip that’s a struggle — Yale is a place where it’s hard to be kind.
We spend a lot of time here admiring each other. I’ve heard peers praised for their brilliance, for their humor or for their dedication to social causes. I’ve participated in awed conversations about the breadth of a friend’s knowledge of their field of study, about their singing voice or about their sense of style. But not once have I heard a peer praised for their kindness.
I myself am not great at being kind. As a child, my dad would often ask my petulant self, “Is it more important right now to be right or to be nice?” More often than not, I would reply, “Well, I’m RIGHT!” I hear the echo of that child in my conversations far more than I would like to. I criticize people who do things I find silly or annoying behind their backs, dismissing the sour feeling I’m left with by telling myself that they deserve it. I unnecessarily rush to prove my knowledge in conversations, even when that means I interrupt and even put down my interlocutor. I snap at my friends and justify it because I’m just so busy.
If I wanted to become more fit or improve my study habits, I would have resources to turn to. But there’s no Center for Interpersonal Gentleness at Yale to provide tips and tricks for bettering our conversational habits, and no Speak Better of Your Peers Educators to cultivate an atmosphere of kindness at parties. We have no formal ways of learning how to be better to one another and very little language for speaking about it.
Kindness is a skill we can work to develop, and Yalies are good at learning new skills. The kindness I want to build in myself is not an avoidance of conflict and not a reluctance to challenge injustice as loudly, stridently and inconveniently as necessary. It is rather an orientation toward others wherein I take them seriously and see them as real enough that I can’t dismiss their feelings.
To act with kindness, in my life, would look like prioritizing my friends’ feelings above an extra thirty seconds of work, even during midterms, and to be aware that only that would be the trade-off I would make by blowing them off. It would look like pausing and shifting my demeanor during social interactions where I notice myself showing off my knowledge at the expense of a real conversation. And it would look like finding other things to talk about to make friends.
This still feels to me like a lonely personal goal, one that I really haven’t been making much progress on. In the bustle of life, it’s easier to focus on my other goals. I can talk clearly about how I’m stressed about getting a magazine I edit printed or my excitement over a paper I’m proud of, but I’m embarrassed to tell friends that I’m disappointed in myself because I was mean while trying to score conversational points or proud because I swallowed back a particularly damning and dramatic piece of gossip about someone.
This year, I want to try harder to be kinder and to talk about how I’m trying. I want to change my answer to the question, “nice or right?” and I want to see this work as just as important as all the other work I do. Perhaps this is even what I’ll talk to new friends about.
Avigayil Halpern is a junior in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .