Laughter and screams resonate from the L-dub courtyard, emanating from a ring of first years. From afar, they seem to be thriving as they enter this new chapter of their lives. They are the perfect image of social success, surrounded by dozens of faces that they can claim they “know.”
For many of us, college is an opportunity to remake ourselves and start anew. Froco groups, suitemates, residential college peers — all of them are people to whom we’ve already projected a new version of ourselves, one that is probably different from the one that has defined us for much of our lives. Why do first years chip away at our imperfections and smooth the sharp edges of our personalities during a time of supposed authenticity? Because like many others once did, we hope to find community.
This aim, however, can result in antithetical emotions. In a sea of groups, being alone can make you feel as if you’re existing on the fringes. I’ve felt this sentiment most prominently when eating alone in the dining hall. The awareness of being without others, which is otherwise unnoticeable in the library or in my dorm room, is relentless.
Thus, I usually make an active effort to get involved in conversation. I introduce myself with an enthusiastic greeting and smile. Conversation flows to topics that most of us can relate to — food, funny stories, complaints, classes. Subconsciously, I find myself working to generate comments, churning out a stream of witty remarks and relatable responses.
All of this appears natural in the moment. But in hindsight, it’s disappointing how often these conversations feel devoid of meaning. Many of them consist of no more than empty statements, rattled one after another to prevent silence from settling in. It makes sense that I struggle to remember the content of these conversations; they are unremarkable.
But perhaps the most serious consequence of these encounters is the feeling that I’ve stifled my true self, conforming rather than embracing who I am. Out of nowhere, I find myself craving social favorability, or at having others perceive that I am social (and in turn, likeable) more than I value my core self, over and over again. It’s not just in the dining hall — it’s in the buttery, the courtyard, even that random suite party.
This overwhelming, sudden feeling can affect even the most grounded of people. The pressure to appear social doesn’t completely alter our behavior, but it does have a substantial impact on the extent to which we express our true selves. We may talk openly and honestly, but that doesn’t mean there’s depth to what we say; our remarks are centered more around being relatable than a desire to share insightful opinions and experiences that we actually believe in. Eventually, we stop seeing the value of our true selves, the ones that may not be the most popular at the dinner table.
In a new environment with new people, many have advised patience — a valid point. As first years, we’ve only just met each other and are still deciding who we want to be; it’s understandable for the bridges of trust to be unestablished. Not every conversation right now has to be meaningful, not everyone deserves to get to know us on a deeper level. Small talk can actually help form initial levels of trust, expanding the range of people with whom we may later form deeper connections.
However, eventually we will need to catalyze this process. Talking honestly and vulnerably is as simple as sharing a curious thought, introducing a topic that is important to you or asking someone about an aspect of their past or identity.
When the time comes, I hope that we can all engage with each other in a deeper fashion — learning about each others’ backgrounds, passions and life experiences. We should be willing and able to talk about topics that we find important, as well as those that are difficult to confront, sharing our doubts and fears candidly. Perhaps most simply, I want for us to embrace the pauses in conversation. They aren’t always comfortable. However, the air doesn’t always have to be filled with noise. In fact, silence often indicates the highest level of comfort and trust — it means we are thinking deeply and with care.
Throughout orientation, we were reminded of how our class, the class of 2023, makes up one-fourth of Yale College. It’s been repeatedly emphasized how we have the ability to shape the culture of this university. Of course, this requires effort on our part. Efforts to be interesting people, who care less about social favorability and more about engaging in meaningful conversations that reveal the best of Yale: honesty, diversity and passion. It’s not enough to not be fake. We must create situations in which depth can emerge by being our truest selves and promoting others to join us.
Edward Seol is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.