POSTCARD: The Social Network

SANTIAGO, Chile—“Does it bother you that I go out all the time?” I asked my Chilean host dad. He was driving me to a house party thrown by a friend of mine…on a Monday night.

Apparently, it does not bother him in the least. As it turns out, my question demonstrated my lack of understanding of Chilean culture. In Chile, he told me, young people are expected to go out and socialize as much as possible. Chilean youth start partying and clubbing when they are in their mid-teens, with the full approval of their parents.

As a norteamericana, I sometimes find it difficult to comprehend how much value Chileans place on building community and strong social ties—the right social ties, that is.

Socialization is extremely important because social networks are the key to success in Chilean society, which is fairly classist and socially segregated. The friends you make in grade school, my Chilean dad tells me, will be your friends for life. You get to know a certain group of friends, and all their relatives as well, and after you graduate from university you have a vast network of contacts from which you can draw upon to get a good job. Just about everyone in the top echelons of Chilean government and business went to school together.

Unlike in the U.S., most Chileans go to universities located close to home and continue to live with their parents all the way into their twenties. Many attend university with friends whom they’ve grown up with. In fact, you can tell a lot about a Chilean by asking him or her where she went to grade school, because from the name of the school you can tell where that person lives, roughly what his or her socioeconomic status is, and which social circles he or she moves in.

The most sought-after universities in Chile occupy a social cache similar to that once held by the Ivy League, and top Chilean grade schools and universities exact a hefty fee for the privilege of joining that cache.

In comparing Chile and the U.S., I recognize that social prestige has its place in American society as well—and that a Harvard degree still carries a certain amount of weight. But with the advent of comprehensive financial aid programs and the impressive array of top-flight non-Ivy private and public universities, going to a so-called “name-brand” school just isn’t the be all end all anymore.

There is value in the type of connections one makes at a place like Harvard, but I think there’s still a streak of individualism in American culture that runs counter to placing excessive importance on social networking. Young people move out as soon as possible, at least telling themselves that they can “make it” on their own. It isn’t uncommon to go to college thousands of miles from home, and to slowly lose touch with grade school friends. Connections are frequently made and broken, as people move through different stages in their lives.

In some ways, perhaps this is the lonelier path to take. But maybe it’s ultimately the fairer one. The Chilean social network provides valuable support for those lucky enough to enter into it early in life, but it also sets up limitations for those born outside its boundaries.

Adrienne Y. Lee ’12, an associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.