I Have Two Heads: Metonymy

Opinion by Rachel Kolb
April 12, 2011, 12:28 a.m.

I Have Two Heads: MetonymyTo what extent is college cliquey? In the best of worlds, I think we’d all like to believe that it isn’t. We’d rather ignore the strange pull that the group mentality can have over our social lives, influencing us to linger in surface-level conversation and to puzzle over the dynamics that exist between our different sets of friends. I know that, from a personal standpoint, I first arrived on campus sighing in relief to be free of the social hordes that had characterized my high-school days. I anticipated college as the kind of place that would enable me to mingle with more different types of people, but on my own terms.

And, indeed, my time at Stanford has been that way, but only after a little bit of maturation. At Stanford, it is entirely possible to live independently of social cliques or group-centered activities, but doing so can run counter to some of our inclinations, as well as the collective mindset with which we have been (dare I say it?) indoctrinated.

Look at it this way. When we first arrive on campus for NSO — or even Admit Weekend — our first encounters with Stanford as an institution are likely to take place within a group-oriented framework. We gather together in MemAud, barely knowing any of the students around us, and plunge into chants extolling how amazing our class is. Freshman dorms practice dorm cheers, insisting on their sense of community before the individual building blocks of that community have been mortared. On-campus clubs and activities do roll-outs to promote a sense of belonging. Before we dig down to the individual relationships that really matter, our sense of group identity can seem like everything.

The approach with which Stanford integrates new students, I think, is an example of top-down processing: in order to meet the people who are the most like us and who can have the most impact on our lives, we must travel through a group-centric hierarchical framework first. The fact that Stanford, from the beginning, devotes so much energy to promoting this sense of community is one of the positive aspects of being here. With the resources that we have, it is entirely possible for each of us to find our niche. However, on campus, the group mentality can persist beyond freshman year, even if by then it has more heft behind it than dorm cheers shouted amongst strangers. Call it cliques, call it stereotyping, call it habit — but it exists because we, as human beings, tend to think about ourselves and other people categorically.

Even now, three years into my time as a Stanford undergraduate, I still tend to perceive my discrete friends as belonging to one group or another. For instance, I associate different dynamics with friends from my freshman dorm versus friends I met in class, friends I met while abroad and friends from my extracurricular activities. These categories are rather distinct in my mind, and they don’t tend to intermingle very much. It’s true that the more time we spend at Stanford, or any other place, the smaller that place feels. So when I realize that two friends from two separate spheres of my life <I>actually know each other<P>, that their own spheres are crisscrossing beyond their interactions with me, I feel a little bit startled. My neatly catalogued approach to visualizing my life has been fractured.

Notice that I’m not saying that group morale is bad, just that it can be counterproductive when it leads us to interact with people based only on our categorizations of them. This is fundamentally what cliques do: they lend us a convenient way of thinking about the individuals in our lives, binding us to familiarity and failing to press us into more diverse relationships. What is more, they also lead us to label ourselves in unnecessary ways. The fluidity to resist this mentality, when our campus has been prompting us to think in terms of our group membership from day one, is what will bolster our growth as individuals, even as we remain vital contributors to a collective effort.

Individual versus herd, self versus society: none of these issues are new. No, they didn’t vanish after high school, and from my parents’ accounts of the workplace, I suspect that we can expect them to continue for decades yet. But we shouldn’t view them as inevitable, either, because we have more individual control over our social relationships than we might think. Some of the most rewarding experiences I have had at Stanford have resulted from telling my usual group, “No, not tonight” and engaging in a conversation with someone with whom I believed I had little in common. It’s something I, and probably many of us, should do more often. After all, how much more will we discover if we have the courage to resist that fear of not belonging in order to pursue what truly satisfies and works for us?


Rachel is starting an anti-clique clique. If you want in, email her at: [email protected].

Login or create an account