Do UCU communication skills translate well to most social situations?
By Paula Kaanders, class of 2013
I’m sitting behind my desk reanalyzing data I collected last year for what must be at least the twentieth time. In other words, I’m mindlessly stuffing myself with Maryland chocolate chip cookies, while looking at my phone every 3 seconds to check for new messages. In the Whatsapp group called ‘US’, consisting of the people with whom I formed a tight-knit friends group back at UCU, a discussion is taking place on a potential fall of the two-party political system in the United States and the West’s embrace of neoliberalism as the absolute truth. In all other groups, the conversation has gravitated towards the mean topic: how hung-over everybody is from last night, how everybody needs to check out this Youtube clip of some dude eating a chapstick, and who wants to go out for a beer later? Sometimes my conversations with others make me feel like I’m leading a double life: I jump from attempting to contribute a nuanced view to a discussion on some deep global issue, to sending selfies to show ‘how fucked up I look’. Sounds familiar? Surely I am not the only UCU alumnus suffering from a bit of left-over UCU idealism that doesn’t seem to be of any use when communicating with most of our peers. Why do we sometimes feel so different, like the elite we’re often made out to be? And how much does it suck? (Just a heads up, I’ve not actually done research for this article, this is literally just my brain poop, every single word of it.)
Moving around has left me with several interesting groups of friends. Most of them are in similar situations as myself: either studying at or having just graduated from good institutions. But looking at the way in which I communicate with all these people, my relationships with UCU alumni seem a clear outlier. We all know the age-old adage saying ‘politics, religion or sex should not be discussed in polite company’. This still seems to hold to some extent even within our own generation (except for ‘sex’, which is now almost always the main topic of every conversation; but that’s a whole different article). However, when I talk to old friends from UCU, as long as everybody in the conversation presents a tolerant and open-minded attitude, pretty much all matters can be discussed. Not so in your average conversation: bringing up transgender rights at parties has not gone well for me. Also, people don’t seem to appreciate ironic John Oliver-esque attempts at ‘#feminism’ while gossiping about Renée Zellweger’s freaky-looking new face. Honestly, it’s a miracle I have any friends at all.
Many people don’t like to think of issues that don’t have a clear-cut answer, issues you have to think about for longer than it takes to finish your beer to formulate a solution, a thought process during which you might encounter contradicting beliefs within yourself which may make you feel uncomfortable (Intro to Psychology anyone?). People will say you’re being difficult, a party pooper, no fun at all. Even though, as UCU alumni, we may see societal issues and their potential solutions more clearly than the average person of our age, we’re not as good at gauging what’s actually going on in any given social group. Sometimes we don’t realize most people don’t feel passionately about fighting climate change or gender inequality. And that if we try to make them care, they’ll either politely dislike us in silence or blatantly end your overly politically correct speech because ‘it’s too difficult’. In this situation, you must re-evaluate what you perceive to be the ‘purpose’ of communication, as outside of UCU there appears to be a much more varied number of different ‘communication cultures’. Perhaps at UCU we learn to enrich each other with knowledge and different points of view; maybe that is the main purpose of our communication. Purposes that others outside the bubble find more important than the former may be to share experiences and emotions, or to make each other laugh or feel good. I have realized it’s important to be flexible enough to be able to engage in a meaningful way within such different ‘cultures’, whatever that meaningful way is to the person you are speaking to. (Or die alone.) Because if the ‘UCU way’ of conversing does not appeal to the majority, then maybe it’s not such a great skill to be displaying all of the time?
How did we even obtain this skill in the first place? It appears that inside the UCU bubble, deep discussion and thought is much more encouraged by the institution and by peers, than at other higher education institutions. In fact, the ‘blatantly ignoring global issues and refusing to speak about them because it’s too difficult’ attitude, which I now commonly encounter in many people, would probably fail you many of your courses and land you in academic probation. As such, it’s possible we graduate with a somewhat contorted perception of what it means to have a conversation.
Now for some first-world problems: it can thus be frustrating being an elitist UCU alumnus. I sometimes care very deeply about an issue, but will not be able to communicate it properly to all the people I care about. How do I tell my mother I detest gender binarism if all she tells me is that Orlando Bloom’s no longer single and ‘boy, is the weather really fickle over there too?’ (don’t even get me started on people’s consistent surprise at the weather being changeable; it’s what weather DOES, how is this still a topic of conversation?). How do I complain about the impact of Brexit on the British economy to people who didn’t realize the referendum was happening? But also conversely, how do I boast about last night’s hijinks to people who’ll just think I’m being an immature college kid? Because it goes both ways: the light-hearted attitude of the majority is often not shared by UCU alumni and I find myself having to justify actions it appears many of us regard as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘studentikoos’.
To end on a positive note: when I read articles about Donald Trump’s latest racial slur, there is nothing better than a friend sending me Rapper Sjors videos. When we learn to be comfortable in many types of conversation among many social groups as intellectual and kind-hearted UCU alumni, that’s when we’re truly bound for success.