I’ve been told that I speak quietly. Immediately after I say something, I automatically prepare for the second delivery, barely hearing the, “Huh?” or, “What’s that?” My parents — brushing off my insistence on their auditory deficiency — chide me for being soft-spoken.
When I recently returned home in late fall, my mom and I went to look for a long down coat to prepare for the New Haven winters. I decided on a cozy knee-length number, and as we checked out, the cashier remarked, “These jackets are really popular, perfect for Chicago winters.”
“It’s chilly where she goes to school,” my mom said.
“Where’s that?” the cashier conversed. My mom looked at me expectantly, inclining her head towards the woman.
“What?” the cashier said.
“Yale,” I repeated. I glanced at my mom. She eyed me, exasperated.
“You speak too softly. You mumble,” she scolded me in the parking lot. “No one, not even dad or I, can hear you.”
Later that night, my dad and I went to an event held in a long, echoey room. I steeled myself with resolve to speak up, which to me, always felt like shouting. A familiar couple approached us. After initial pleasantries and a long anecdote about their son’s recent college escapades, the woman focused on me. “So, where do you go to school?”
“I’m ready,” I thought. “I’m gonna show dad that I can speak up. One word, you can’t go wrong. One, two, three, enunciate!”
“Yale,” I articulated. I felt like Eliza Doolittle. My dad exhibited his proud-father smile, so I knew I’d been heard in the loud room.
Nevertheless, the woman said, “What?” I repeated myself.
“Wow, you must be brilliant,” she chimed and then tried to set me up with her son.
I don’t deny that I am soft-spoken, but I’d like to add a caveat: I am selectively soft-spoken, articulating with care. I do not believe this to be a personal affliction.
After almost two-and-a-half years at Yale, I realize that one thing students don’t like talking about is where they go to school. Beyond New Haven, if someone asks where we go to college, a range of half-truth responses ensue. To sidestep the Y-bomb, many favor the classics: “a school in Connecticut,” or, “a college on the East Coast.” If one is feeling audacious, they may select, “a small liberal arts school in New Haven.”
Referring to Yale by the town, state or coast on which it resides is not a new habit. Even Nick Carraway of “The Great Gatsby” retorted, “I graduated from New Haven in 1915.” However, what would appear to be embarrassment for the school we attend is, in fact, communal unease with our self-identified privilege. The Yale name can twist and derail subsequent conversation.
This anxiety is somewhat merited. Even I find myself mumbling to dodge conversations that can take an uncomfortable turn, such as the aforementioned woman’s offer of betrothal to her son. I have experienced reactions ranging from disbelief (“No, you do not go to Yale!”) to laughter. What can one say in response to, “Gee, you must be really smart”?
Perhaps I murmur to prevent people from treating me differently after they learn where I attend school. The Yale name raises expectations and changes the social nature of relationships. Speakers of this single word are suddenly elevated to the level of expert or genius. It casts them into a box where their primary attribute is their intelligence, and labels such as “snob” or “highbrow” are soon to follow.
However, these reactions do not compare to the damage inflicted by playing this name game. More usual responses to the question, “Where do you go to school?” include longer names, such as, “University of [State].” Yale’s monosyllabic punch may not be expected. Yalies may think that we are doing people a favor by sparing them the name of our college, preventing them from being caught off guard while simultaneously granting us humility.
We think this makes us classy and thoughtful, but we fall into the trap of being elitist. In avoiding coming across as presumptuous, condescending braggarts, we are being presumptuous, condescending braggarts. By evading “Yale” to spare ourselves of any discomfort, we selfishly force interlocutors to jump through hoops and participate in an unwanted, impromptu geography lesson. We assume that they are impressionable and overly-excitable. It makes them feel small.
The sometimes cringe-worthy reactions the Yale name elicits reflect more on others than ourselves. Yale exists whether we mention it or not. Our school is a tool more than anything else, a place of opportunity that we should be proud to attend. The best thing we can be when talking about our education is straightforward.
Julia Kahn is a junior in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .