Ineptitude or individuality?

UChicago is a place that encourages individuals to be who they are—but not necessarily by themselves.

By Jake Smith

I recently started a job that involves interviewing people. At an orientation meeting, our supervisors played the new recruits a slideshow explaining how to set up and conduct interviews. At first, it was predictable advice: Remember to proofread e-mails, always confirm meeting times and locations, etc.

Then the presentation dove into a little too much detail: Six slides explaining how to make a basic phone call; extensive reminders to dress appropriately and “be aware of body language”; and an entire slide on “The Art of a Handshake” (reminding us to “avoid the death squeeze”). The slideshow’s author seemed to think our social skills were about on par with those of a pack of untamed muskrats.

I had a hunch that the slideshow’s author was painfully aware of her audience: UChicago kids. It struck me then that the UChicago archetype has morphed into something that’s not only negative, but also frequently wrong. Our school has embraced a stereotype of social ineptitude, and that stereotype completely misses the point of UChicago culture.

Every student knows some version of the stereotype: It’s the notion that UChicago students uniformly eschew social life to go study, that we spend too much time by ourselves to understand how eye contact works, that we are less assertive than the campus’s squirrels. And it dominates the way people think of UChicago, both within the University and outside it.

Of course, this stereotype didn’t appear out of thin air. It’s rooted in the fact that this school, more than virtually any other, encourages students to pursue what they love, especially if it’s wildly underappreciated elsewhere. Into Dungeons & Dragons? Contra dancing? The presidency of William Taft? At UChicago, that’s great. Our acceptance of the unusual attracts a lot of people.

But the social ineptitude aspect comes from the belief that every person is isolated in her passions, or that intense academics prevent us from interacting with other people. Neither is true. We play D&D in groups. We contra-dance as a community. We talk to each other about President Taft at parties. And we study chemistry in the Reg together.

In short, UChicago culture is not about being an antisocial nerd—it’s about pursuing what you love and finding others who love it too, even if that love happens to be weird or graceless. That’s why the stereotype misrepresents our student body’s true uniqueness.

Strangely, we students propagate the stereotype more than anyone. We hawk social ineptitude and self-absorbed geekiness on T-shirts and coffee mugs as our own personal brand. We mean it to be tongue-in-cheek, knowing that it’s not quite universal, but it sticks nonetheless. As a result, we sell our own zeal as aloof zaniness.

To be clear, I’m not claiming that every UChicago student possesses the charisma of Barack Obama and the social finesse of Princess Diana. Some of my fellow interviewers probably appreciated the exposition on phone calls and handshakes. Many on this campus are legitimately not equipped for social situations—but many others are.

Either way, we’re focusing on secondary characteristics. Neither social skills nor a lack thereof gets to the core of what makes UChicago so UChicago-y. Individual passion is what sets our college culture apart, and what makes our campus such an interesting place to be.

Some might think that the stakes aren’t very high. After all, when push comes to shove, won’t a student’s personality speak for itself? If I’m awkward, I’ll come off as awkward. So why does the antisocial stigma really matter?

I think the real danger is when we start to project the stereotype on ourselves—when we decide not to make eye contact with someone we’ve met before and justify it as “UChicago rubbing off” on us. Because it’s not. Social situations make everyone uncomfortable sometimes, and maybe this campus does put us at a disadvantage in the social arena. But aloofness shouldn’t be an inescapable characteristic by which we define our own personalities.

In some ways, we’re breaking out of this pigeonhole. The blog Hyde Park Romances is a great example, reflecting our strange and fascinating spectrum of relationships. It presents our social interactions as we experience them—hit or miss, happy or sad, awkward or charming. It flaunts our idiosyncrasies honestly rather than reductively.

And that’s far better than the tired stereotype. After all, the UChicago brand shouldn’t tell us that we’re socially inept, isolated, or anything; it should reflect the passion and individuality that each of us brings to campus.

Jake Smith is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.