The Myth of the Impenetrable College Clique

While exclusive friend groups were commonplace in high school, UChicago’s social scene is less daunting if you remain open-minded.

By Susy Liu

In high school, I hated people. I wasn’t antisocial, but I had a small group of friends and just kind of ignored everyone else. People as a collective idea were just generally disappointing. In my experience, they were cliquey, they were bullies, and they never actually cared about you. Because of this mentality, I ended up isolating myself, closing myself off to classmates, many of whom I later regretted not getting to know better.

I came into my first year of college with a more open mind. But still, O-Week felt at times like a Hunger Games of finding friends, and could be a little discouraging. Fall quarter I felt like I was “behind” my suitemates socially: I felt like I wasn’t as close to others as they were. They had secret topics to talk about already, and I immediately felt excluded, almost instinctively, as feeling excluded had become a habit.

During those times, it was hard to put things into perspective, because I had been framing social situations in terms of cliques vs. loners, cool vs. uncool, and fake vs. real for a long time. Surprisingly, I found that my high school mentality of social structures barely aligned with the actual social dynamics of college. By taking social risks, being more conscious of others, and staying open-minded, I found that while cliques don’t entirely disappear in college, they’re only there if you actively look for them; that being cool doesn’t really matter, since so many UChicago kids were uncool in high school; and that fakeness is a matter of perception, not being.

One of my friends says that cliques are basically what people who are afraid to approach others call groups of friends. If you don’t believe that you can join the group, any group of friends might seem exclusive. He says that secretly, however, everyone wants more friends. You’ll find that people are actually very open to meeting you. Many a time I have sat at my house table alone eating at strange hours of the day and bumped into house ghosts I never see or expect to have conversations with. Surprisingly, they come sit with me, and I end up having substantial conversations ranging from semi-nocturnal sleep habits to career aspirations. I then realized that I could approach others as openly as others approached me. At a place like UChicago, where so many students know how it feels to be excluded and overlooked, your peers know your value and won’t easily dismiss your experiences and perspectives.

So, don’t be afraid to approach others. Be around people. Be available to others and take social risks. It might be uncomfortable at first—I remember feeling extremely vulnerable O-Week when I entered a bustling house lounge alone. But instead of being ignored like I was used to, my housemates welcomed me and invited me to a game of Monopoly. From then on, I hung out a lot in the lounge and faced social risks with a “Why not?” attitude. When my house IM representative needed girls to play flag football, I went without knowing how to play or throw a football. We lost—mercy rule—41–0. But that game was the best decision I made all quarter. I started to participate in midnight soccer instead of staying on the sidelines. I did bowling, volleyball, broomball, and I bonded with my housemates over bad pre-game dancing and equally bad post-game chanting. We didn’t win a whole lot, and I was definitely a little awkward at the beginning, but I kept with it, and my housemates are now some of my best friends.

Taking risks isn’t as hard as it seems, and there are many ways to do so. A trick I learned recently is to count down from five whenever you are hesitating to do something. Don’t get caught up in “trying” and psyching yourself out. If you want to approach a group of people, count down from five and then just go do it. Even the smallest social risks are worth taking, like saying hi to people you know going to and from classes. I’m constantly pushing myself to take risks and be open to others. During office hours, I got to know my fellow struggling classmates instead of ignoring them. We were talking about the weather or something, but it doesn’t matter. Once these risks become habit, so many social possibilities open up.

My second piece of advice is to focus on others, not on yourself. A lot of awkwardness comes from worrying about how you come across to others, whether or not you seem cool enough. Friendships are about being genuinely interested in another person and finding common experiences, and being self-conscious distracts you from expressing yourself and your unique experiences naturally. There’s this episode of *How I Met Your Mother* where Ted and Barney are trying to pick up girls on “The Drunk Train” (late-night trains that inebriated partygoers take back home) without success. They went back to the drawing board and it hit them—they weren’t having success because they weren’t drunk like everyone else was. They were too focused on their own mission to be immersed in the Drunk Train experience. Of course, you don’t need to be drunk to have fun—that’s not the takeaway here! But I found that if I thought too much about my goals in social situations, I didn’t feel completely like part of the UChicago Friendship Train. Trying to be myself with others has been a lifelong struggle, but I noticed that the relationships I value most came serendipitously, for example, through IM sports. They didn’t come from meticulous planning and I never pushed myself to become friends with them. I realized that relationships come naturally when you express yourself naturally, and that involves thinking a lot less.

Connecting with others also requires you to be conscious of others, which, for me, involves being interested in others and caring about them, two things that go hand in hand. Luckily, UChicago’s student body is famous for being endlessly interesting. One of my good friends was taking Honors Analysis as a first-year and his entire worldview is built on mathematical models. One late-night conversation led him to draft up a theory of the impact of human beliefs on social good, complete with graphs and integrals. Developing an appreciation for his unique worldview gave me a deeper appreciation for his personhood as well, even as someone who doesn’t share his love for math. Being able to understand people on a deeper level led to being more caring and conscious of them. Before college, I was never really perceptive of my friends’ emotional states, but I can now see more clearly what they are feeling and do my best to respond accordingly.

Third, I found that the construct of “real” versus “fake” friends I was used to in high school is really just a matter of comparing people you don’t believe you can be close to those you are already close with. But “real” friends take time, and no one is truly one-dimensional. Many of my peers can relate to feeling like a different person depending on what group of people they are with. Selfhood is dynamic. Because of this, I believe closeness comes when people both recognize that the other is multifaceted and are willing to explore the different sides of a personality. Everyone has their own way of revealing themselves to and understanding others—it’s not always about sharing each other’s deepest darkest secrets. But first, you need to believe you can be close to others. If you believe that people are dynamic, that you can be close to them in your own way, others will feel at ease to express their dynamic self and be close to you as well. Sure, I might connect more with certain friends than others. For example, I can connect with one friend emotionally better than I can with another friend, with whom I connect better intellectually. But the former friend is not just “caring” and the latter friend is not just “smart” to me. They are each complex, and I feel close to them knowing that they know I am complex as well.

I know that’s all a bit abstract, but the point I’m making is to stay open-minded. There is no one “type” of person you can be close with. I might not have sought out many of my housemates as friends from the get-go. But a mutual appreciation and understanding grows with time. So, even though it might seem like people are closer to each other than you are to anyone in your first week or months, really, you are not behind in any way. Just keep at it.

At the end of the day, remember that everyone else shares the same qualms you have. But as you’ll start to notice and experience, those fears don’t stop us from seeking meaningful connections with others.