Around Valentine’s Day, my friends and I were looking at The New York Times list of “36 Questions That Lead to Love.” The questions, like “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” and “What do you value most in a friendship?” seemed unremarkable considering what the list promises. Always the critic — or maybe too cynical a candidate for love — I couldn’t help but think the prompt only appears to dig so deep in comparison to the standard space-filling that dominates most public conversation. Even in settings as intent on connection as first dates, it’s easy to take up time with talk that skims the surface, not even allowing the opportunity to fall for someone.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about conversations just as much as having them — sometimes even while having them. In a lot of casual talks I feel this weird separation from what I’m saying. My mouth is on autopilot and my brain annotates, administering strikes every time I’m responsible for an awkward silence. I’ve always wished I was a better conversationalist. Not for falling in love, but to be polite to other people’s parents, to help distract a coworker during the slow parts of a shift, to survive office hours past the point of my questions being addressed. To pass endless social tests.
Over the phone the other day my sister asked me what Cornell people are like, and at first, I only had thoughtful silence to offer her. I’m a senior and I still feel like I only have a vague impression. She was saying that people at her college in Connecticut are repressed. When they go to shows they stand around stiffly. They get happy enough to smile but never shout about it. I told her that wasn’t the case here, but I don’t want to speak for everyone — especially not the Engineering school. Then again, I lived in Cascadilla sophomore year, and while my floormates may not have found me at fishbowls, they weren’t tight-lipped or reclusive. They gave me the humbling experience of being shamed for my study habits as well as the honor of being invited to a Smash Bros tournament.
People here, I decided, are talkers. It can be hard not to feel like a caterpillar among social butterflies. But speaking with people here can feel like reading for a script I’m missing pages from. With every sentence I sense expectation, that there’s something smart or interesting that they’ve heard before that someone else would say in my place. Everywhere there’s a film of friendliness that I can’t find my way into.
It makes me duck and cover when I see sorority sisters who spoke to me like a spooked horse in first-year writing seminars. I can’t think of anything else to say to those smiles. Yet, on the other hand, I can’t help the crushing invisibility I feel from the averted eyes of people who decided I was unimpressive in a discussion section ages ago. I watch as they scope out social scenes like satellites, searching for only the most intelligent life to make contact with. Although there are different styles of doing it, or maybe a spectrum they fall along, it’s like Cornell people learn to talk as a tool. It can be hard to get to know someone while we tend to each other like robots, our moments together amounting to not much more than networking and maintenance. Most of my casual conversations are just someone else’s formalities.
If you stop someone for enough speed-round conversations on campus, they will have to vote for you in that club officer election. It’s not legally binding, but what is the law to social code, anyway? This order of events is hardly a scheme as much as it is a seed planted in our subconscious. Sometimes being a talker is as simple as being tapped-in to the unwritten rules of social networks. As a first-year, I second-guessed reaching out to a professor when I noticed other students had email signatures. I was so ashamed to lack such sophistication that I made myself sick speculating how many other trade secrets would have been missing from the email before my modest sign-off. This type of conversing is an acquired skill, and it makes me wish I had a template for every conversation I start.
But speaking for success shouldn’t mean we have to cut connections so short and shallow. Talk is cheap like a shirt from SHEIN. It’s good to get us through the doors of one frat party, but it’s already falling apart before the night is over. Playing by other people’s rules, even if we do it perfectly, can be fruitless in its own way. A few times over the last month I’ve heard from my friends of this hunger for something missing, whether it be in the form of sex, romance, or someone worth standing by. Sticking to the script can leave you unsatisfied when the curtains close.
My most cherished interactions with people who are not yet friends are the ones where we catch each other on a night out, or otherwise unexpectedly. One of us approaches the other too enthusiastically for how well we know each other, and we sing praise we’ve been shyly withholding or spill out about something that’ll be a little embarrassing to remember the next time our eyes meet on campus. But it will become a reason for the smile beneath our hellos.
Even The New York Times’ 36 questions are from a psychology experiment aimed at the hypothesis that intimacy can be synthesized and streamlined. The feelings of closeness are meant to be manipulated into reality by the questions, efficiently, scientifically and formulaically. You can take it like an interview and treat love like the dream job at the end.
Networking, I think, is a necessary evil. I know its value, but it can feel so vapid to speak with people just to keep them as social contacts in an ever-growing inventory. Closeness is what helps me cope with my poor conversation skills. It’s hard for my brain to do so much tuning out and anxious annotating when I speak with people that I’ve come to know vividly. A good talk can even feel spiritual when you’re with someone you find special enough. The hunger some of my friends had mentioned has been hitting me too. I know some people so well, who are so great that it makes me greedy for more, wondering how many other Cornell people I’ve let slip through my fingers because I was too busy trying and failing at sticking to the social script.
Alecia Wilk is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Tuesday this semester.