“I have so much work to do tonight. I have two [blanks] for [blank] class. Also, I have to write my [blank]. Yeah, I’m dying.”
So many conversations I’ve had at Yale play like this tape recording. I greet someone, they greet me, we ask each other how we are and proceed to talk about our laborious classwork or other club or job-related work, throwing around phrases like “I’m so dead right now” or “Someone kill me.” I used to mentally tune out during these interactions, my commentary coming from conversation cruise control rather than meaningful thought. And up until recently, I didn’t see an issue with that.
Expressions of stress concerning classroom and extracurricular-related work dominate small talk but also weave themselves into many other conversations — at meals, meetings and recreational time. In fact, if someone asks you how you are and you reply “good!” without giving a follow up complaint, you may as well have spoken in gibberish. Is everyone honestly always in such a state of intense mental strain? The answer is no, which is precisely the problem. Expressions of stress have become such a conversational norm that discerning whether someone is good, OK or truly experiencing negative feelings is obscure. In addition, this trope can cause us to unintentionally trivialize the feelings of someone potentially in need of support either from friends or professional mental health services.
I don’t believe that anyone wants to downplay the experiences of their friends or peers, so why does it happen?
Stress, as well as deeper mental manifestations such as depression and anxiety, used to be matters people either didn’t believe in or feel comfortable talking about openly. Thanks to the positive efforts of many to end the stigma surrounding mental health issues, there is a much more supportive environment for people struggling with these kinds of illnesses. A new and tricky phenomenon has come along with this, however. Stress and mental illness are now trendy. Anxiety and depression are sometimes viewed not as the debilitating illnesses that they are — illnesses that have impacted my own family — but as romanticized depths of feeling that make someone’s presentation on social media or in real life more edgy and alternative. In a similar vein, being stressed and scattered in college is something that is comical, cute and, most importantly, relatable. And while most people aren’t consciously pursuing this image, people mindlessly reproduce it, as is common with all social phenomena.
Another dynamic that may be present is the subtle insecurity many Yalies feel from being surrounded by highly engaged and accomplished students. And while that very fact is one of the best parts of being a student at Yale, it can cause even the most self-assured of us to wonder why we have yet to publish a critically acclaimed novella or cure a chronic illness. Voicing our work stress and listing our responsibilities to peers may be a proxy display of our achievement, a subconscious attempt to reassure ourselves and others that we deserve our place here. The problem this presents in conversation is that when one person voices their stress to bolster themselves due to personal insecurity, it creates a perceived challenge to the other person in the conversation, such that they feel the need to prove themselves and follow with their own stress. What results is an annoying and pointless Stresslympic Games (1 point if you have a problem set or memo due tomorrow, 3 points for a test or paper).
Whatever the reasons behind stress talk, whether at all related to trendiness, insecurity or simply social behavior, the product is the same: words that don’t do justice to our friendships. Friendships aren’t deepened by a mutual ability to frivolously commiserate but rather through shared passions, values, goals and empathy. So, the next time you talk with someone and they mention work stress, gear the conversation to a more positive discussion of the content of their work or another aspect of their life. If they seem genuinely stressed, treat the situation seriously and show them you are there to listen and not to brush them off with a lighthearted “haha OMG same” or assert your stress against theirs. In short, be mindful in your interactions with people — they are more impactful on individuals and campus culture than you think. Mindfulness is neither a sparkly, satisfyingly concrete nor an all-encompassing solution to this problem, but it could inspire more sincere conversation on campus. The simple fact is that most students strive to be good friends to each other and that value easily eclipses any trend, groundless insecurity or social behavior.
Sophia Carpentier is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.