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I used to love introducing myself and having conversations with new people. I would talk about how my mom randomly decided to name me after a professional volleyball player, even though she had never really watched or played volleyball. I would tell them about my home in a tiny village on a small island in the middle of the South Pacific. And I would share with them my love for basketball or the reasons why green is the best color in the world.
But after my first couple of weeks at Harvard, I quickly learned that no one cared.
I soon learned that I needed to re-work my introductions so as not to bore people to sleep. No longer did I mention fun facts about the origins of my name or about the island I was born and raised in. And, no longer did I reveal my favorite sport or my favorite color. Instead, my introductions were redesigned to include the number of times I represented my island at national academic competitions. I refrained from passionately explaining my reasons for joining particular clubs on campus and instead spoke about the amount of work I was doing in these clubs, because that’s what people were more interested in hearing. And so, I learned that the trick to making friends at Harvard was not to friendly introduce myself. It was to establish my power and my intellect.
At Harvard, the most important thing that we are taught is how to expand our social networks for personal gain. The importance of networking is drilled into us through different academic advising sessions and even through conversations with upperclassmen, who swear it is the only way to move up the ladder in life. On top of this, the Office of Career Services has a whole webpage dedicated to advising students on how to “make connections,” defining networking as “nothing more than talking with people who can provide you with information, advice, resources, and possible contacts related to your fields of interest.”
But this creates a culture of transactional relationships and absurd standards. Relationships that are only pursued if there is a potential, mutual benefit. Standards of achievement that a person needs to meet before earning the friendship of others. And it is all because we are taught not to listen or care about the quirky, little things that make people who they are. Rather, we are trained to assess a person based on the potential “resources” that they may have to offer in the future.
In this way, truly genuine relationships are not formed. With this pressure of assessment, I’ve felt forced to prove myself to people I do not yet know. Rather than introducing myself anymore, I introduce my achievements and potential for success by listing past accomplishments or talking excessively about my big plans for the summer. It is almost like I am a college applicant again, but this time my peers are the admissions officers and I am desperately waiting on an acceptance letter into their friendships.
So, I don’t talk about my favorite foods or try to start the debate about who the best Avenger is. I don’t mention funny childhood memories or share my deep, personal secrets with others. Instead, my conversations with people are a monotonous reciprocation of complaints about the amount of problem sets, papers, and extracurricular work that have yet to be completed or the little amount of sleep that is achieved on a daily basis.
When asked about my day or my well-being, rather than recount a funny joke that my TF told in section or confess how much Skyping my family made me miss home, I spit out this rehearsed mantra of all the work I have to do and all the deadlines I have to meet, as if to subtly prove my capabilities and my work ethic. And so, I keep a mask on — a mask that veils who I really am, because I don’t think anyone really cares to know. Even worse is the expectation that I am not to venture behind other people’s mask, but rather judge them based on the attractiveness of the mask that they present.
If this is the case, how can we really be sure that the people we call our “friends” truly care for us? We need to stop promoting social networking in the interests of materialistic personal gain, and instead start taking the time to genuinely listen and understand each other. Rather than trying to figure out if that big summer internship pulled through, why don’t we stop to genuinely ask others how their day was or ask how they’re doing? Because at the end of the day, everyone wants to finally rip off their uncomfortable mask and know that someone actually cares.
Gabrielle T. Langkilde ‘21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Eliot House.
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