While many people desire access to elite and selective groups, those who are rejected often harbor strong resentment of the chosen few. As members of one of the most elite and selective groups in the world, Harvard students are on the receiving end of a hearty portion of both envy and disdain. We have a reputation for exhibiting many qualities: extreme intelligence, nerdiness, socially awkward behavior, arrogance, and snootiness. It is not a coincidence that only one quality on this list is complimentary.
It is this reputation that causes many Harvard students, myself included, to feel hesitant about advertising where we go to college. If I know I will be leaving campus during the day, I almost always put my Harvard t-shirt back in the drawer and pick something more unidentifiable. If it slips my mind and I find myself in Central Square with “Harvard” emblazoned across my chest, I suddenly become self-conscious. It’s not that I’m ashamed of where I go; it’s that I know what people will think of me if I wear it for all the world to see.
I remember seeing a man wearing a Yale shirt three summers ago before I was accepted into Harvard. Without exchanging any words with him, my first thought was that he must be a snob. He just had to make public that he was somehow associated with an elite university, rubbing it in the faces of us commoners.
That many students fear this reaction to wearing Harvard gear in public is laudable. If one is aware that doing something, as innocent as its intention may be, will likely cause a negative misunderstanding, refraining from that action is both wise and thoughtful.
There is another habit, however, that Harvard students have that stems from a similar reluctance to rub Harvard in other people’s faces, but generally backfires miserably. This is the tendency, when asked where they go to college, to reply with anything but Harvard. “Massachusetts.” “Boston.” “Cambridge.” Or as was demonstrated on one episode of 30 Rock to an unfortunately realistic degree, “You know, I went to college in Boston. Well, not in Boston, but nearby. No, not Tufts…”
This tactless Harvard custom needs to stop. If you are speaking to anyone but the most disinterested conversation partner, you will be questioned further until the truth finally comes out: “I go to Harvard.” This is when it gets really awkward. Now your acquaintance knows you were trying to conceal that you go to Harvard, and will assume this is because you didn’t want to hurt his or her simple feelings about being so much stupider than you. You’ve succeeded, by trying to avoid looking arrogant and condescending, in exhibiting both qualities. This is different than refraining from wearing a t-shirt. You’ve engaged with someone and then concealed information. It’s a rare conversation—much less relationship—that can recover from this type of disaster.
I’m convinced that this behavior is responsible for the poor reputations of many Harvard students. It should not be surprising that acting pompous has led to our reputation as pompous students. While I hope that most of the time this habit is the result of well-meaning consideration for others’ feelings, the tone of voice used by some students when prevaricating about their college indicates that they get some kind of satisfaction from what they consider their own personal form of noblesse oblige.
Harvard students have achieved something incredible in one aspect of life in gaining acceptance to the college, and have the right to feel proud. But students are not better people because they go to Harvard. I believe most students agree, but if they want fewer people to think they’re snobs, they need to stop acting like it, whether intentionally or not. Like a howler in the Harry Potter series or a band-aid that needs to be ripped off, once the awkward question has come up the H-Bomb is best dealt with sooner rather than later. Avoid making an uncomfortable situation worse, and just tell people you go to Harvard when they ask.
Wyatt N. Troia ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Winthrop House.