Qu: Our Love of Embarrassment

We should love Dartmouth’s love of embarrassment — but critique its ethos.

by Dorothy Qu | 5/11/17 12:25am

I don’t have Netflix. Therefore, whenever my friends discuss “13 Reasons Why,” I can only sit and listen. From the information that I’ve gathered, this show vividly illustrates — rather dangerously — the hyper-judgmental environment that many of us lived through in high school. As much as we attempt to overcome the peer pressure surrounding how we speak, act, dress and exist, many fail to do so. “13 Reasons Why” did not catch my attention because of its accurate portrayal of high school or shock-value; it caught my attention because of its stark contrast to Dartmouth’s culture of embracing embarrassment.

We worship flair. I have yet to see people as weird as First-Year Trips Croo members, Dimensions show participants and so on in the outside world. At one point, I convinced myself that fanny packs were a natural occurrence since I saw at least one a week while I was out perusing Webster Avenue (they are not). Dartmouth is by no means a judgment-free zone, but this initially scandalous show of fashion independence contrasted starkly to my high school experience. Indeed, the brightly-dyed hair of Trips contributors should have alerted me to Dartmouth’s underlying culture of eccentricity. It’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced before; forgive my pretentiousness, but that says a lot coming from someone who has immigrated from two countries and is now residing in her third continent.

To be frank, I am not unbiased. Dartmouth’s ethos has made me more confident, happy and comfortable with myself. My heart still attempts to force itself out of my chest whenever I raise my hand in class, when I volunteer myself in front of a crowd, when I speak my mind or when I’m put in any sort of spotlight. However, because I know that at Dartmouth embarrassment is appreciated, I can confront these challenges with some confidence. While this knowledge may not affect those of us who are naturally self-assured, it has made a world of difference for me. I therefore encourage those of you who, like myself, have never completely felt comfortable being wrong, obnoxious, adventurous or weird — and I mean weird — to take advantage of this aspect of Dartmouth. Where else can you experiment with your discomfort with so little social consequence?

The fact that Dartmouth worships embarrassment is a paradox in itself. Embarrassment is defined as shame, chagrin and awkwardness. Therefore, some may argue that Dartmouth’s method of determining social hierarchy by how outgoing or “obnoxious” you can be — case in point: Dimensions — is just as toxic as other methods that determine social hierarchy, such as wealth, race and attractiveness; by elevating embarrassment, we turn it into convention. Still, I believe that the potential awkwardness and nervousness that comes with putting yourself out there, quirks and all, counts as embarrassment in the most basic sense, even when it exists in a place where that behavior is more accepted. But I am also highly critical of Dartmouth’s conventions, for the embarrassment custom co-exists with an equally (if not more) prevalent appreciation of wealthier, affiliated students. Moreover, this culture heavily favors those who have been raised to display confidence, and it would be foolish to pretend that socioeconomic status and race do not have a significant factor in determining this quality.

Only certain types of people thrive in this kind of environment. Not everyone’s goal is to become more extroverted, and we shouldn’t make people uncomfortable for not being “obnoxious” enough. That being said, self-confidence is a universal virtue. Most people are “ambiverts,” neither completely introverted nor extroverted. Only by becoming more comfortable with gregariousness can we fully embrace and appreciate our natural introversion. We cannot fully live our lives if we fear the part within us that craves sociability.

Though Dartmouth’s culture of embracing embarrassment is not necessarily better than that of other colleges and environments, I appreciate what it offers. Students should take advantage of this ethos and those favored by this system should actively expand their circles and reach out to others. Doug Phipps ’17 wrote a great op-ed in March about inclusivity within the Trips program a few weeks ago, and I passionately agree with his argument that those in power should improve outreach to students of color, the unaffiliated and other “others.” Study hard, sleep well, do something silly — and do it often — because that’s how you learn to be bold and be happier.