Khanna: Introductory Questions

Encounters with unfamiliar faces have become ways to define status.

by Maya Khanna | 11/1/18 2:10am

“What high school did you go to? Where are you from? What are you involved in on campus? What classes are you taking? What are you going to major in? What are you planning on doing with your life after Dartmouth?” 

Dartmouth students are all familiar with the drill. The standard introductory questions that fill uncomfortable silences, provide segues into discussion at meetings or are used as get-to-know-you exercises for clubs. As a first-year student at Dartmouth, talking about these customary questions with people I have never met is as much a part of my daily routine as Foco cookies and feeling perpetually unprepared for my ever-upcoming midterms. These questions have become a habit, an expected part of what it means to meet someone for the first time. Amidst the hubbub of rushing between classes, extracurriculars and work, they are an easy fallback that requires negligible thought or effort, while maintaining a respectful veneer of interest in the other person. These “safe” questions seem to represent the perfect balance of merits for both participants in any given introductory conversation — reasonably interesting, more-or-less pertinent to the majority of students on campus and a sufficient volume of material to discuss over the course of the five or so minutes typically allotted for these “meet and greet” types of conversations. 

Within the immediate context of these conversations, these questions may very well serve as easy fodder for students struggling to come up with alternative questions. I will admit to having asked almost everyone I have met here at Dartmouth this standard set of questions within the first 10 minutes or so of meeting them. Faced with the pressure of first impressions, coming up with suitable alternatives can be very difficult. In addition, questions that lie outside of this generally accepted model often run the risk of being perceived as “weird,” “too personal” or “too specific.” Yet it is precisely the “universal applicability” of this six-question special that has allowed them to exceed their function as introductory questions and become the standard metric of comparison amongst students at Dartmouth. The very nature of these “surface level” questions leads to “surface level” answers that fail to provide the context needed to even begin to understand the specific nuances of an individual’s background. Heritage, family history, individual interests, socioeconomic status and all of the other one million and one details necessary to begin to understand what it means to live someone else’s life are too often forgotten in favor of the ability to make judgements about another person by virtue of the information divulged in their first few sentences. 

In a community dedicated to chasing excellence in every facet of life, the comparison among students is not confined to competition in the classroom. I got into this club, and they didn’t. My major is more difficult than their major. I went to a more prestigious high school than they did. My family has more money than their family.

In an oftentimes hyper-competitive student body, these judgements are frequently made without thinking twice. They are processed as “normal thoughts” by individuals who have grown accustomed to viewing life as a competition, in which even the slightest edge may represent what is too often seen as strictly demarcated lines between intelligence and ineptness, superiority and inferiority and success and failure. 

Dartmouth’s six favorite introductory questions do not represent the many complicated reasons for the immediate judgements made by students, toward students. They do, however, perpetuate the myth that it is acceptable to maintain a tradition that too often veils judgement behind politeness, and duplicitous motives behind seemingly well-intended questions. Although it is admittedly very difficult to deconstruct our “introductory status quo,” it is an effort worth making for students who wish to live in a community in which every individual is valued not for who they were before they came to Dartmouth, nor for who they will be in the future, but for who they are now. Focusing on asking questions that are intentionally specific to the individual you are conversing with avoids the pitfall of focusing not on their circumstances, but on the ways in which they have pursued their passions in ways that are meaningful to them. In short, in focusing on the why of an individual, rather than the what, people are better able to appreciate others’ unique stories, which belong to a realm of understanding beyond comparison.