Column | Sept. 30

The social bottleneck

Entering my sophomore year, I began discussing with my friends the inevitable decision of which eating clubs to consider.  This question seems so different now than when I pondered it only a few months earlier. As a freshman, the idea of “bickering” an eating club seemed exciting. It has all the right qualities to be more appealing to freshmen than any other class. As the new kids on the block, you don’t know many other students, and you desperately crave to find a new place to fit in and feel accepted. There’s even an added feeling of accomplishment if you successfully make it into an exclusive club like Cottage or, God willing, Ivy. An article written in the ‘Prince’ last year made an uncomfortably accurate observation: Princeton students are obsessed with exclusivity. Most important of all, as a freshman, you have nothing to lose by throwing your hat in the ring and getting into the club of your dreams. Hell, it might even feel like reading that acceptance letter from Princeton all over again.

I am only now coming to realize how naive a view that really is. By this time in my Princeton career, the social anxiety of making my way in the strange new world of college life has largely worn off. I’ve struck a good balance between study and leisure, I fill my time with a good mix of enjoyable activities and most importantly, I have a large and diverse network of friends drawn from many different corners of the Princeton campus. Life seems good, and the decision of joining an eating club is becoming more and more of a chore every day.

I’ve found that one of the biggest benefits of Princeton’s relatively small size is that it’s easy to stay connected to a lot of people.  You essentially see the same students in many of your classes. I can’t imagine walking into a class at UCLA and already knowing 15 of the 20 people in the room. Everyone uses the same communal spaces: Frist Campus Center, Dillon Gymnasium, Firestone Library (jk, nobody goes to Firestone).  Even just walking between classes, I have to stop at least a dozen times to catch up with friends I see along the way. Above all else, as underclassmen, everyone eats in the same places. Walk into Wu/Wilcox dining hall at 6:30 during the peak of dinner rush, and the list of people you could sit and eat with, swap advice, vent on or just chat with is astronomical. To me, that’s the most appealing aspect of feeding time (it certainly isn’t the food — no offense to Dining Services).

Meals are social events, downtime to unwind with friends before or after a long day of work. Spent right, they can be the best time for maintaining relationships otherwise impossible to have. As a member of lightweight crew, I know that any time I want to talk to some of my closest friends, there will be a horde-like gathering in Whitman dining hall taking up at least three tables to the dismay of many Whitmanites. But I budget my meals well. I split my dinners with crew and my other friends, such as club croquet or even just my hallmates and ex-zees. Breakfast and lunch are spent almost exclusively in Forbes, because there ain’t no family like the Forbes Family.

The most important thing is that I never have to question whether or not I can eat with anyone. All the dining halls are open to me all of the time. This just isn’t the case with the eating clubs. Now, some people might respond with, “But you can always get a guest pass” or, “Just use the meal exchange,” etc., etc. Yes I could, but rarely do I ever plan my dinners days in advance. Everything is casual and impromptu. Have I eaten with them recently? OK, I think I’ll try Mathey today (yeah, I even go to Mathey). Guest cards, shared meals, they’re all just unnecessary hassles that will prevent me from doing what I can do now for nothing. The beauty of the dining halls is their simplicity. So, why then am I being forced to segregate myself from my friends? Why do I have to pick one group of people I like most and literally join a club with them? And why do I have to enter into some stereotyped variety of people — floaters and boaters, stoners, preppy kids — in order to enjoy lunch with a friend?

What are the eating clubs? They are a social bottleneck, a restriction on the number and type of relationships I can sustain. They are a forced segregation of students into categorized groups. They are machines for perpetuating and exacerbating social cliques. They are an unnecessary limitation on the set of people I can see and eat with every day. Yet, the most disappointing thing about them is they are almost unavoidable. Because of their prevalence, if I want to eat with any of my friends at all, I have to join one or else risk losing my friends all together. Thus, I begin pondering which club to join, only this time I’m not thinking which place will be ultra-exclusive or throw lots of parties. Now, I just want to find a club that will limit me the least. So, if writing this lowers my chances of getting into Ivy, I’ll accept that. I might just embrace my given stereotype and join Cloister like all of the other genital-flashing rowers.

Christian Wawrzonek is a sophomore from Pittsburgh, Pa. He can be reached at cjw5@princeton.edu.

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