This column originally ran in The Chronicle, Duke's independent student newspaper.
"Do a lot of people date here?"
The question caught me off guard. Over Au Bon Pain coffee, I sat discussing my experiences at Duke with a visiting family friend and her daughter, who were touring campus. We had proceeded through the common talking points: academics, social life, basketball and East Campus. After a pause, I answered that while couples certainly existed--particularly among upperclassmen--I did not think dating was the norm. She asked me why that was the case. I laughed, saying that was a complicated question.
Recently, my professor taught a lecture about contextual gender ethics. He read an excerpt by Katrine Marcal, who described the concept of the "economic man"--the standard of behavior humans are pushed to emulate. The words across the board read, "The economic man is rational, dominant, selfish, powerful, emotionally unavailable, independent and competitive. He knows what he wants, has an unlimited appetite, and you cannot change him." In contrast, according to Marcal, society characterizes traits traditionally associated with femininity as economically irrelevant: emotion, the body and dependency. The class was asked to discuss within what settings at Duke it feels beneficial to behave like the economic man or act based on these conceptions of femininity. For the former, students spoke easily about academic pursuits, professional ambitions, extracurricular activities and the formation of social groups. A consensus existed among both genders that we are well versed in how to be this figure. The economic man strives and achieves. So do we.
"Duke students usually do not try to be dependent or vulnerable. We aim high and race forward on our own."
When pondering spaces where emotion is highly valued, the conversation slowed. Duke students usually do not try to be dependent or vulnerable. We aim high and race forward on our own. The qualities of the economic man allow us to succeed, but we have been programmed so exhaustively we grow uncomfortable deactivating this mindset when it comes to grappling with emotions.
I do not want to speak in absolutes. Of course, people have their own definitions of emotional and physical fulfillment. For many college students, the hook up culture fulfills exactly what they want. Casual encounters do not necessarily reflect an inability to find relationships. For those of us who want to find significant connections, though, I am puzzled by the disparity between many Duke students' general intelligence and emotional intelligence. I notice an ironic pattern of regression: as time rolls forward and students sharpen their intellectual abilities, many grow less adept at handling their feelings.
The task of honestly identifying and dealing with emotions reduces many people to an uncharacteristic passivity. I have numerous friends who experienced committed relationships in high school but now quake at the idea of defining a relationship or being the one to initiate plans. I watch boys walk all over girls who are forthright, outspoken and confident in other aspects of their lives. People grow terrified of frank communication when the conversation involves acknowledging attachment. Although people tend to be perceptive about ambitions, they cannot analyze their own feelings, resulting in detached hookups that could have become more but never did. Sometimes we do not want attachment, but sometimes we do. How strange it is that perhaps we were more emotionally equipped to find meaningful connections at age 16 than we are now, as we head off to summer internships and graduate schools.
"I notice an ironic pattern of regression: as time rolls forward and students sharpen their intellectual abilities, many grow less adept at handling their feelings."
Too often, Duke students equate emotion with weakness. Our desires to succeed with ease and remain in control are equally ubiquitous in the romantic realm. A stigma is associated with being perceived as vulnerable because everyone wants to be the one who cares less. No one is willing to concede and admit to feeling anything. Here, our slightly egotistical and loss-averse inclinations emerge. If we care and the other person does not, we could be embarrassed and the possibility of being hurt arises. But we are too smart for unnecessary emotional hurt; we are too busy with too many things to do. We fear attachment because risk is attachment's closest companion. If we can convince ourselves our feelings towards someone do not extend beyond something casual, then hypothetically we are never vulnerable, right? We continue to appear composed and thriving to the outside world. We fail to confront or express our emotions. Nothing is gained or lost.
Perhaps this aversion to vulnerability boils down to a fear of failure. Maybe we are afraid of getting entangled in emotions over which we cannot guarantee control. We are accustomed to sailing through life with supposed ease. When we trip, we do not know how to fall softly. We remain convinced that by never admitting to having feelings, we never risk being judged. We are not skilled at handling rejection with grace. This attitude is like rationalizing that we should not attend an interview so we can't not get the job, and after that, deciding we do not actually want to be employed anyway. Of course, this logic sounds absurd when applied to situations beyond the romantic realm. In the world outside Duke, success involves taking risks, and vulnerability accompanies this. We are prepared for this academically and professionally, but why not personally?
"A stigma is associated with being perceived as vulnerable because everyone wants to be the one who cares less."
People often wonder why they cannot find the connections they search for here at Duke, but first they must admit to wanting them. This involves not feeling embarrassed for caring or stigmatizing people who do. This game so many play with themselves--whether knowingly or not--seems emotionally backwards. People are engaged in a personal competition to never lose, but I would not equate never losing with winning. We just end up racing against ourselves. And that can be lonely.