Fearless Flitzing: Dartmouth's Strange Communication

by Leina McDermott | 4/26/16 5:05pm

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article about the mating ritual of seahorses for a biology class about animal communication. The paper describes how a male seahorse will show interest in a female via a prolonged courtship dance, hoping to secure her as a life-long mate.

In the field of ecology, communication is defined as the signaling of information from a sender to a receiver. Animals send signals to one another to communicate anything from an approaching predator to sexual interest. Individuals of the same species have unique signals that allow them to communicate with one another in ways that other species may not understand.

Of course, this applies to humans too. We are all constantly signaling to one another, expressing happiness, anger, confusion, interest and fright in various ways every day. And as young people we take full advantage of the many methods at our disposal that allow us to interact with one another.

In a way, Dartmouth students are their own species of college student. Perhaps this happened as a result of our isolation, like Darwin’s Galapagos finches. On this remote campus, it is easy for us to forget our uniqueness. But when faced with an influx of young strangers, it becomes incredibly apparent that we exchange many signals that outsiders do not understand. The looks of bemusement on prospies’ faces in response to words like “Foco,” “facetimey,” “flair” and even “prospie” betray our speciation.

But it’s no secret that we have our own lingo; in fact, the ’20s will be relieved to find glossaries of Dartmouth slang online. The real mysteries of student communication are far subtler.

Take the blitz, for example. When I first came to Dartmouth, the concept of blitz confused me for weeks. It seemed to lie in some blurry haze between texting and email that took some time to get the hang of. Francesca Governali ’18 finds that often the transition from blitz to text can get awkward, especially with someone you do not know very well.

Blitz, text and GroupMe seem to be the most useful signal modalities for spreading information to campus, meeting with friends or communicating in a group project. But what of the most distinct, meaningful act of communication: romance?

“Flitz, of course,” Ariel Klein ’17 said of the Dartmouth flirting scene. “It speaks to the larger culture of the school that people are willing to meet new people that they don’t know and take a leap and a risk. But also, it’s sometimes weird if you’re talking to someone you don’t know.”

Flitzing, or flirty blitzing, is certainly a hallmark of the Dartmouth romantic scene. It’s something that everyone talks about, but seemingly few people have in fact had positive experiences from.

Juliana Levy ’19 received her first flitz last term.

“I think flitzes can be so uncomfortable,” she said. “[The flitz] was really elaborate. It was like a rhyming song-poem.”

Levy did not respond to the flitz, but she also added that success really does depend on the person behind the message.

The indirect aspect of flitzing seems to be representative of the way Dartmouth students express interest in one another in general. For animals, decoding signals is often quite straightforward. Bright coloring is designed to attract mates, alarm calls warn that a predator is nearby, a scent-trail marks the path to a food source. Take the seahorses, for example. A courtship dance clearly communicates to the female that the male is interested and ready to mate. Biologists can observe and interpret these signals.

But understanding the meaning behind things that people do isn’t always so easy. Perhaps especially so at Dartmouth.

“I think a lot of it is covered with these innuendos and stuff, like, you know, ‘Do you want to play pong with me?’” Klein said.

It is difficult to find a straight answer to the question of the true nature of pong-partner relationships. But it isn’t hard to see why the slightly-intoxicated-in-a-dimly-lit-basement-working-as-a-team dynamic might take an amorous turn.

“It’s a bizarre thing that’s definitely Dartmouth-specific, but asking someone to play pong is definitely an indication that someone likes you,” Klein said.

Grace Callahan ’19 felt differently. She said that while pong certainly can involve romantic undertones, it’s perfectly normal to play with a friend without any implication of the sort. After Callahan said this, Lydia Blanchet ’19 jumped in: “There’s definitely sexual tension no matter what.”

Even if pong is taken to be romantic, its exact implications are still murky. While it could suggest genuine interest and a desire to spend time with someone, it also seems to have the stigma of being a precursor to hooking up.

Ambiguity can be seen in meal invitations as well. Of course most people have had the experience of seeing an old tripee or floormate and exchanging offers to grab lunch sometime. How does one distinguish a casual invitation to catch-up from something more meaningful? Many people seem to use the venue of the meal as an indicator.

“In terms of on-campus places, I don’t think it matters. If it was off-campus it would definitely make a difference,” Governali said.

While this is a common view, some people find subtle differences between on-campus locations as well. KAF dates, for example, certainly imply something more than just stopping at Foco after class. In fact, Governali mentioned two friends who had a first date at KAF and are now dating.

Isaac Green ’17 felt strongly about the distinctions between on-campus dining locations.

“If you hook up with someone and then they ask you to have a meal, upstairs Foco is the way to go,” he said. “First of all, it’s kind of discrete, so if you don’t want people to, like, see you, it’s great. Secondly, it facilitates the opportunity to hit it off if you do, but there’s no pressure if you don’t because it’s Foco.”

Then again, perhaps it’s not so much the place as the person asking.

“It’s not significant on its own. But if I like someone, asking them to a meal is something I would do,” Blanchet said.

It seems that the only clear thing about romantic communication at Dartmouth is that it is incredibly unclear. It’s no wonder that evidence of confusion over mixed signals can easily be found on Yik Yak. We have all seen the late-night yaks expressing bewilderment and frustration over being unable to interpret certain signals and behaviors.

Why, then, must everything be so shrouded in uncertainty? Perhaps, Klein suggests, people use ambiguous signals as a defense mechanism to avoid hurt.

“The fear of rejection, especially at Dartmouth where people are used to succeeding, is just so big,” she said. “When people finally work up that courage they’re so proud of themselves, they don’t want all of that to be for naught.”

When animals communicate, their signals must be direct in order for survival. Perhaps it is a shame that Dartmouth students don’t have the same evolutionary requirements as wild animals.

“A lot of direct communication is often not what happens here, and it should,” Klein added.