Why Can't We Be Friends?

by Daniel Chiu | 10/8/07 10:31pm

There's a scene in the movie "Mean Girls" in which newcomer Cady -- still completely ignorant of the customs and norms of her American public high school -- surveys the scene in the cafeteria with wonder during her lunch period. She notices that her fellow students are clustered together in distinct groups that, as her friend Janis describes, run the gamut of stereotypical high school cliques: from the "preps" and "J.V. jocks" to "desperate wannabes, burnouts, and sexually active band geeks." Obviously, the movie is a hyperbolic and exaggerated portrayal of social cliques -- funny precisely because its rendering of adolescent social interactions is so over the top. But amidst the laughs is a surprising grain of truth. The movie works partly because its caricature of high school sociology is an honest reflection of how young adults actually partition and subdivide their social world.

Cady's experience with the "Plastics" underscores how heavily we rely on our friends -- and the cliques we form with those friends -- to solidify and define who we are. And it provides a warning, disguised as satire, of how we should not let those social boundaries constrain us or prevent us from discovering new friends, new interests, and new groups. Yes, high school may be over, but the forces that shape how and why we make friends, form cliques, and interact with one another are, for better or worse, still applicable in college.

It is an unfortunate fact of our social landscape that we are often most open to new friendships during our admittedly awkward first year (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, the fall of sophomore year). Driven by a need for acceptance, we were, if not kinder and friendlier, at least more open to one another during those tenuous first few terms. And being identity-less, we, like Cady, embraced the chance for self-reinvention -- the chance to leave our high school selves behind and erect new identities. We abandoned the nerd of our past and took up a club sport. Or perhaps we exchanged the showerhead for a real mic and joined an a cappella group. The possibilities were endless as long as our identities were as yet unformed. We were emboldened to approach new groups and new people because the boundaries and borders that come to divide upperclassmen had yet to materialize, and the only identity we had was that of "First-Years."

Unfortunately, it may be the case that as we solidify our identities and come to better understand who we are, we also begin to close ourselves off to people and experiences that fall outside the realm of our established identities and inner circles. This phenomenon is evident in all of Dartmouth's social spheres, from sports teams, to clubs, to Greek houses. In the process of forming these groups, we necessarily (whether consciously or unconsciously) exclude those who don't share the same characteristics, beliefs, or patterns of behavior -- hence the clique.

But this type of exclusion is necessary to forge any social network. Without exclusivity, without a separation of "us" and "them," there can be no unity, no group identity. There can be no nerds, no jocks, no Plastics. And ultimately, there can be no sense of belonging.

It is that yearning for belonging that makes us more outgoing our first year. Cliques are so powerful precisely because they reinforce that sense of belonging and that sense of identity. Unfortunately, they can also pigeonhole us with particular labels and roles and leave us indifferent to the possibility of new experiences, new friends, and indeed, even new cliques -- the very possibilities that made freshman year so unique and exciting.

Of course, we will naturally gravitate towards certain people more than others. Not even a "cake made of rainbows and smiles" would make us all friends and erase the social fragmentation that exists (if only). But I do hope that the freshmen can retain the spirit of openness that they now possess even after they progress from being nameless first-year students to accomplished, self-assured upperclassmen. Perhaps, like Cady, we can all learn to retain a sense of identity and a sense of belonging without buying too much into the reticent, cliquish mentality that has come to define our social landscape. Even while we're all busy becoming campus Kings and Queen Bees, perhaps we can still leave ourselves open to grabbing lunch with the Mathletes -- however uncool those jackets look.

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