On the first day of my intellectual history class this semester, my professor shared one of her favorite anecdotes. She set the scene: She is playing on a toy piano with her son. Next to her is her father-in-law, who is reading the introduction to an early 20th-century novel.
“The introduction mentions that this author grapples with the central problem of modernity,” he remarks. “What’s the central problem of modernity?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” she replies. “Alienation.”
Cue the laughter. Reducing 150 years of history to a single problem is one way to get a rise out of a group of students. Yet I sense that the laughter was part of something deeper. The joke struck a chord with Yale students because alienation is something we’ve all experienced in our time here.
Of course, we don’t define alienation the way an intellectual historian would. The word means different things to people of different backgrounds, but we can use the word more generally to describe a feeling of being undervalued or isolated in our social bonds. It’s a feeling often caused unintentionally by people we are acquainted with; it happens when we fall short in managing and negotiating our social relationships.
While I’ve experienced my share of alienation at Yale, I see it most clearly when I’m mediating a feud between friends. It’s a familiar cycle: One makes a promise, and the other fails to recognize the importance of the commitment. I’m talking about flaking, of course, but these alienating behaviors extend beyond not showing up to an event.
Some of us are prone to setting unrealistic standards of those around us. Yet even for the more pragmatic among us, low-stakes acts of disregard can compound into a culture of alienation. Our frustrations compile, and we string people along in order to avoid conflict.
Perhaps alienation is inseparable from how we “do” Yale. Social invitations are only as true as a Google Calendar invite, and the constant flow of group chats creates cognitive overload. The lack of free time we have lends itself to streamlining — or forgoing — more fulfilling conversations; a discussion becomes something with a self-imposed end, if it starts at all. And why would it be any other way? Our let’s-get-a-meal-sometime culture is one of feigned enthusiasm. Better to stick with the script than to stick out.
Whether or not the structure of life at Yale predisposes us to this feeling, we can work together to alleviate alienation on our campus. We can think more critically about how our actions alienate others. With this, I want to explore three ways we can make each other feel less alienated and, in turn, work towards a better community.
First, we should clarify expectations in our social and extracurricular groups. It’s unrealistic to assume that everybody will be on the same page at all times. We can lessen confusion by being honest and up front about the energy we’re willing to expend on commitments or conversations, and about what we should expect from others. If it’s important that your peers make it to a meeting on time, or that your friends reach out when you’re MIA, let them know. We can avoid conflict when we know what behaviors cause alienation. The more we vocalize expectations, the better results we’ll achieve.
Likewise, we should stay true to our commitments. If there is one thing that unites the entire Yale student body, it’s the value we place on our time. When we flake without reason, we are acting without empathy or consideration for those around us. Whether or not we mean it, this leaves our friends or acquaintances feeling undervalued. We can do better. Stick to your plans. Show up to your meetings early. These require planning and accountability, sure — but they make for a more authentic self and a better community.
Lastly, we should reaffirm the value we place on our relationships. This doesn’t require writing long letters or handing over gifts. Rather, we can make an effort to spend distraction-free time with our friends, and to get to know the people in our colleges and extracurricular groups. We can substitute superficial half-conversations by listening to our acquaintances without interjecting. We can stop and chat when we run into somebody on Cross Campus. In these ways, we can build connections that leave an impression beyond the time that they require.
Alienation seems omnipresent here at Yale, but we can each play a role in fostering a more connected community. I’m ready to play my part — and I hope you’ll join me.
Xander Mitchell is a junior in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .