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Newly unionized workers put up a banner at Hillel. Credit: Caroline Brand

Last week, I had lunch with a stranger.

Well, not a stranger per se, but not an acquaintance either. A friend of a semi-friend.

A mutual acquaintance thought our interests were strikingly similar, so he suggested we meet. Prior to our lunch, I did some quick Facebook research, — as to avoid asking every single guy in the restaurant if he was Alex — and braced myself for the worst, preparing to eat my tomato soup in silence in case we couldn’t find anything to talk about.

Thankfully, however, that wasn’t the case at all — the conversation flowed seamlessly, and we even laughed a few times, as if we were old friends.

Truth be told, that isn’t something I normally do. My lunch and dinner date rotation consists of the same dozen or so friends, with the occasional acquaintance thrown into the mix.

This seems to be how most social calendars at Penn operate — namely, with little variance. I’ve heard more than a few upperclassmen admit to not wanting — or needing — to make new friends or branch out. By and large, we appear to be complacent with our status quo social circles, especially by senior year.

While we still frequently meet new people, the follow-up seems to be lacking. I estimate that we exchange names and handshakes with someone once a day, but would venture to say that few, if any, of these people ever hear from us again — let alone turn into new friends.

For a school that’s known as the “Social Ivy,” we seem to exhibit a lot of antisocial tendencies. That’s unfortunate, considering the extraordinary caliber of the people around us.

This isn’t just endemic to Penn, however. According to clinical psychologist and TED Speaker Meg Jay, “Twentysomethings are in almost constant communication with the same few people.”

She continues, “New information and opportunities — and dates — come from emailing your aunt’s neighbor or having coffee with that friend of a friend … The urban tribe is overrated.”

Admittedly, expanding or reworking our social circles — or disbanding our urban tribes — is easier said than done. Not only are we fighting a constant battle against time, but we also fear becoming the person who collects relationships like we used to collect Pokemon cards in third grade.

We might look desperate or worse, insincere. And if we fall on the wrong side of the fine line between making new friends and making new connections, we risk becoming what Authors@Wharton guest speaker Keith Ferrazzi calls the “networking jerk.”

Furthermore, while it is easy to build a social relationship over the course of four years, it seems doubtful that any type of meaningful bond will blossom over the course of nine months.

But I don’t think we should let ourselves off the hook that easily.

I’m not saying that we should strive to make new friends all the time — that’s unrealistic and somewhat utopian. Besides, according to evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, humans only have the cognitive capacity to maintain up to 150 relationships at a time.

We should, however, strive to incorporate new names into our calendars — not necessarily for the sake of finding a new best friend or networking, but rather to experience the diversity of opinions, backgrounds and experiences possessed by our peers. After all, isn’t that one of the main reasons why many of us chose to come to Penn?

While senior societies provide one such avenue for building new relationships as an upperclassman, the vast majority of Penn students are unaffiliated with these groups. Furthermore, I’m unconvinced that this problematic trend can be solved institutionally — it is a pervasive cultural issue.

Today is Mix It Up at Lunch Day at over 6,000 elementary, middle and high schools across the country. On this day, students are encouraged to take a different seat in the cafeteria in order to meet new people.

When you decided to come to Penn, you probably imagined yourself constantly exchanging ideas with people from all over the world — not necessarily only spending time with people in your dance group, fraternity or major. In order to make the most of our Penn experience, every day should feel like Mix it Up at Lunch Day. If fourth graders can do it, so can we.

Caroline Brand is a College senior from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. You can email her at or follow her at @CBrand19. “A Brand You Can Trust” appears every other Tuesday.

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