Welcome to late March: the season of senior society tap. Society tap is perhaps the thing at Yale with worst ratio of “potential to be good” to “is actually good.” This is not to say that there is not something wonderful about society, singular, the intimate group of 16 people. There is, absolutely. But alongside the friendship of a society is the system of socially divisive societies, plural, a corrosive and exclusive organism of suddenly stratified Yale social life.
Society tap ruptures the logic of pre-society Yale social life. In the first three years of college, Yale has a horizontal hierarchy that hinges on the tacit agreement that people do different things because they like to do different things. Some people go out; some do not. Those are both choices, each no better or no worse than the other.
Society tap changes that logic by demanding a new social verticality, tarring college with a high school brush. If you get many letters — or if you are interviewed by one of the eight landed societies — then you’ve “succeeded” according to all discernible Yale metrics. If you don’t — or you don’t get tapped at all — then it seems like you didn’t. That’s a myth, but one worth unraveling with suggestions to improve the system.
The first honest response to the myth is: No, landed societies are not better. This is true. Everyone enters their society not knowing most of the group, and almost everyone graduates with new friendships developed over senior year. Society, singular, demands that you commit to ritual and uphold a basic promise that you will be there when you said you’d be there. You cannot be in a society and think your time is more important that everyone else’s — something essential for every Yale student to learn before entering adulthood.
Furthermore, the experience of telling your life story in the form of an hourslong “bio,” and listening to 15 other life stories in turn, is rare. The tradition of bios started after World War II as an affirmation that American leaders could only be agents of global prosperity if they could introspect. A Yale adult would be a person who could listen and reflect, a firmly planted individual who could hold others’ stories alongside their own. In some ways, that worked. Listening to bios really does demand thoughtfulness, kindness and patience. Telling your bio does the same. That is a beautiful, standardized experience in all societies.
But yet, but yet. The other honest response to the myth is: Yes, landed societies are better. This is also true. They have tombs, private chefs who cook dinner and well-endowed alumni networks. They demand a formality of time that necessarily forces closer friendships. There is something real about sharing food together. There is also something real about the difference between spending six hours together every week and spending ten or twelve. A delight and simultaneous devastation of landed societies is that, by sheer virtue of time, many of their seniors graduate with a new cadre of best friends. In the best-case scenario, that’s nice. But in the worst-case scenario, these new friendships can supplant those from the rest of college. It’s an artificial social change that doesn’t happen as often in nonlanded societies. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
The least-discussed perk of that being in a landed society has nothing to do with the group itself and everything to do with the strange cult of “society mixers,” parties available only to landed societies and held in tombs. It would be one thing if everyone who chooses to do society were placed into their societies — some landed, some not — and then everyone forgot about everyone else’s society for the rest of senior year. But these parties propagate the sense of bourgeois exclusivity floating over tap week well into senior year.
Choosing to interact as whole-unit society fails the mission. Societies are meant to be places of reflection, trust and inclusion. Although the structure is inherently exclusive, the large amount of societies let many seniors sink deeply into strangers’ lives, an experience worth consideration. That feels tainted when only a few societies in a few clusters throw parties in their tombs, a circuit that comes to choke parts of senior social life.
So, to Yale’s next crop of landed gentry, I have a suggestion: Either open your tombs to seniors invited regardless of society affiliation or don’t throw parties at all. And to Yale’s next group of seniors even thinking about society, I’ll say this: I like my society. I’ve made deep and lasting friendships there. And there’s a lot to be learned from practicing kindness in this way. But society is a sacrifice of time — a real sacrifice of time — and one not to be made lightly. If you’re not getting letters, that might sting in the moment, but you may very well have a much better senior year. So when you’re choosing whether or not to participate, consider this: The more you can do to make college feel less like high school, the happier your senior year will be.
Amelia Nierenberg is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .