Guest Column by Nikhil Menezes | Friendship and the allure of structure
November 3, 2013, 4:49 pm · Updated November 3, 2013, 10:44 pm·
Deconstructing social life at a university can be a jarring exercise. It challenges our romantic notions of arbitrary relationships and can reveal disconcerting foundations. By arbitrary relationships, I mean that perhaps unrealistic ideal of meeting a person in a random space, hitting it off with that person, maybe exchanging numbers and then sharing enough common experiences to make appropriate the label “friend.”
When I think of my almost two and a half years at Penn, I am hard-pressed to think of many relationships that fully match this ideal. In this respect, there is something magical about the freshman hall. Although mine was a residential program — calling into question its randomness — my freshman experience involved a diverse array of people whose company I may have avoided had sustained interaction not been guaranteed by virtue of living close to one another. No offense intended, but you know who you are.
However, beyond the freshman hall the spaces in which we cultivate relationships tend to be more premeditated. The realm of social life most associated with this critique is Greek life. It is true that given a certain set of characteristics — among them looks, weekly substance intake, ethnicity, place of residence and income bracket — one could make a reasonable guess as to which fraternity or sorority a student belonged. But Greek life so often acts as the punching bag in this case that many other social structures slip under the radar.
Clubs can be subjected to the same analysis. One joins a club hopefully out of a genuine individual interest, but this coincides with the entrance into a group delineated by that same interest. Any room for awkwardness is stamped out by stringent meeting times and clear agendas. Instead of the sustained interaction of the freshman hall, the mechanism that usually fosters social cohesion is an appropriately contrived one: the BYO.
Yet other mechanisms are obviously at play. Just the act of carrying out a club’s purpose together — be it putting on a play, providing a community service or debating issues — can engender camaraderie. Such is the ostensible rationale behind the initiation period of a fraternity brother or sorority sister. But it still all takes place in a constructed environment defined by the interests or ethnicities of those involved.
But why should it matter what environment relationships grow within, as long as those relationships are healthy and enjoyable? There is no stamp of legitimacy given to relationships made within arbitrary contexts and barred from those made within a frat house or club meeting. Rather, what I find troubling is that on a campus dominated by clubs and organizations, the opportunities for arbitrary relationships are becoming increasingly rare.
The way in which we identify with one another is then becoming less about who we are and more about the organizations that we belong to. Personality has not ceased to play a role, but we have become so entrenched in constructed social groups that we no longer readily venture out of them.
Smartphones have done their best to make awkwardness obsolete, but we will always be in fear of that silence that lasts just a few too many seconds. Common interests serve as a conversational safety net and are certainly helpful and even necessary for friendship, but becoming too dependent on them can lead to social myopia.
We must accept that our lives are not Aaron Sorkin films. Conversations with new people can be inane, affected, clumsy and finally, unsuccessful. But limiting yourself to social groups that minimize these risks betrays not just laziness, but a certain arrogance. Implicit in a strong preference for a specific group is the assumption that you do not have anything to learn from people outside of it.
Stuck on a small plot of land with thousands of students about your age, it should not be difficult to find commonalities independent of student groups. Moreover, in searching for similarities you are more likely to find compelling points of difference. While all the contexts in which we make friends will be constructed in one way or another — most inescapably by the very nature of being at a university — creating connections independent of these contexts is a skill that should not be lost on a college campus.
Nikhil Menezes is a College junior. His email address is email@example.com.