The “K” Word

I’m a Patriarchal Bastard

The other day in class, we were discussing the idea of Komplimente, or compliments. This discussion was a routine part of our curriculum, as one of our teacher’s goals in the B2 level course has been to make us engage in discussions using colorful vocabulary. As we talked about and elaborated what compliments were, when they were used, what makes us so queasy to accept them, how they change depending on the setting, I pointed out that compliments are kind of like ass-whoopings.

“Compliments are more fun to give than to receive.”

“How so?” my teacher responded. “Give an example.”

“Well,” I began, realizing that the imminent stringing together of clauses was going to unleash the kind of carnage upon the German syntax that would have made even Jack the Ripper proud, “complimenting strangers, for one, is an example of compliments being more fun to give than to receive. When I see a girl who’s put effort into her outfit, I’ll sometimes tell her in passing, ‘Hey, I really like your dress!’ It takes little effort on my part and it’s a compliment that—“

I stopped midsentence noticing that my classmate sitting next to me had the peeved look of someone who came back from vacation only to find her house burned down to the ground. Okay, maybe “peeved” wasn’t the right word. She was pissed.

“That is so friggin’ patriarchal,” she commented without looking at me. This was no Middle East but I had definitely stepped on a land mine. My natural reaction to stepping on a land mine, of course, is to see if I can step on another.

“How is that patriarchal? What does that even mean?”

“You don’t get it. You just don’t get it.” My classmate wasn’t having any of my let’s-poke-everything-with-a-stick-including-things-I-shouldn’t-be-poking approach, which I learned in Exacerbation 101, and, whatever being patriarchal meant, I decided that I wasn’t going to be called something I didn’t even get an explanation for.

“How is that patriarchal? It’s like holding open the door for somebody or saying thank you or greeting the cashier with a hello – the compliment is just as much of a small act of kindness as those things.”

At this point, the teacher correctly assessed the situation and diffused the tension, but it left me thinking: am I being patriarchal? Could I really be a bigger douche than I thought was humanly possible? Should I contact Guinness?

Deja Vu

 

I brought the story back home to my host parents Bernd and Astrid, whereby Bernd began to laugh.

“I used to hold the door open for people,” Bernd said, “but that’s a big no-no, I don’t do it anymore now.”

“Why not?” I questioned.

“Because it’s seen as treating women differently, that they need the doors opened for them. I got yelled about it once, haven’t done it since.”

“How does that make any sense? You were just being polite. You’re holding doors for everyone, not just women, or in your case, that woman.”

“I know. I don’t get it either. Na ja.”

Na ja? This bothered me. Common sense was being thrown to the wayside, and it was almost as if a NFL Replacement Ref was erroneously signaling that a little politeness, thoughtfulness, and kindness should be penalized. Have we all been this batshit crazy? Furthermore, didn’t this kind of attitude seem reminiscent of something I had encountered before?

The Penn Is Mightier

 

I am about to utter the six words nobody at my school ever wants to say in public: Penn is an Ivy League university. The nature of the school, then, is of hyper-competitiveness, because some of the brightest kids in the country, and then there’s me, are put in an environment to fight for the best grades. While many, if not most, of my classmates received the top marks in high school and were the best students in their classes, there’s a tough reality that the student must swallow after a semester or two: that’s not going to be the case at Penn. Some of us will twiddle around with a GPA a little higher than 3.2, some of us will feel the bearing weight of actually receiving a sub-3.0 GPA, but very few of us will attain the top GPA. That’s all okay and dandy if not for the fact that the majority of us, as a result, feel that fall from glory and feel it hard.

At first, the excuses crop up. “I didn’t even try that hard,” or “I probably enjoyed my semester too much,” are generally the initial ones. Then, as you tone down the partying and start putting more effort into the class, only to receive a similar grade, the next excuse becomes, “Well my professor was being hard on me.” As the justifications for the unsatisfactory GPA pile up higher and higher, there finally comes a daunting realization. “I’m just not good enough to get the best grade in my class.” Even worse, this realization oftentimes makes way for a self-confidence crippling damnation, which, from that point on, begins to nag the back of your mind constantly. That judgment is, “I’m a failure.”

That self-doubt drains everything from the Penn experience, and after a while that self-doubt becomes the Penn experience. Everything and anything at Penn becomes a reaffirmation that there is someone better than you, smarter than you, funnier than you, more interesting than you, harder working than you, more connected than you, and so on. This daily battering of the worth, the ego, creates a phenomenon at Penn that most students probably can attest to, the Penn façade. You can’t fight the Penn façade and you can’t beat the Penn façade, because it’s the Penn culture.

The Penn Façade

 

This façade, this phenomenon, this culture, whatever you want to call it, goes completely against any sort of rational thinking. If I’m going through emotional turmoil, I put a smile on my face, keep whatever internal problem to myself, and pretend that I’m just as happy as the other 10,000 undergrads on campus. If I’m feeling down because I haven’t had the easiest time making real, emotional connections with others, I go out, binge drink to make everyone more tolerable, and “become friends” with people I’ll never actually say hi to on Locust Walk. If I did badly on a test and I need someone to talk with to feel better, I look around, notice everyone else is happy, and am implicitly coerced into faking a happy attitude as well. It’s absolutely counterintuitive to living a content life as a college student, and in that sense it’s completely against any sort of logic, yet this is the norm. Logic and contentment, please make way for acceptance and fitting in.

Does it sound poisonous? That’s because it’s undoubtedly poisonous. The façade promotes a culture of self-absorption, because through self-absorption can one focus on maximizing the grandeur of their façade. It’s a vicious cycle, where one feeds into the other and vice versa, and it’s no wonder that, at the end, there’s a dearth of actually happy people at Penn. Too many people are focused on a self-absorbed lifestyle, whether that’s trying to get the next best job, acing the next test, or whatever superficially meaningful thing that the Penn culture has touted as all-important, another badge of meaningless accomplishment, and these people have to, because once they look up from the self-absorption, the idea that you’re just no quite up to snuff begins beating you over the head again. Meanwhile, what gets lost in all of this is kindness.

There’s no real place for kindness or thoughtfulness or politeness at Penn, or at least not genuine ones. If there were, there’d be a lot happier student population. Students wouldn’t be complaining about the lack of real, deep human relationships, the Penn Mental Wellness Week tumblr wouldn’t be filled with relatable stories of emptiness in the students’ lives, and you would be reading this without having at least a thought or an occurrence cross your mind that related to what I’ve been talking about. Why be kind? It won’t show up on my resume, unless it’s an organization that officially shows how kind I am. Why be thoughtful? There’s enough to worry as is without having to think about what someone else is feeling. Why be polite? Too busy – don’t have the time to, “Am I reaching for the stars here?” In all cases, the thought process is one that focuses on the personal perspective as opposed to the outside perspective. It’s not about “the other,” it’s about “me,” and where that kind of thinking prevails, of course there isn’t any place for the aforementioned acts like kindness.

Living through this emotionally numbing atmosphere, I’ve been to an unhappy place. I felt like shit. I felt alone. I would stay up at night, wondering if I was doing something wrong. It made me question every decision I’d made, made me hate every decision I’d made, and I would sometimes quietly sob away my night, hoping I’d fall asleep and wouldn’t have to think about these terrible thoughts anymore. But when I wake up and everything feels impersonal again and everyone else is focused on their own life and I’m once again left feeling detached and lonely, the questioning comes back to nag me once again.

Should I have joined a frat?

Should I have given up on my extracurriculars so I could have focused more on school?

Should I get actual extracurriculars like a position in a club that would look good on my resume instead of pickup soccer and Pottruck basketball?

Should I have gone out this weekend?

Why the fuck did I even get in here in the first place, and what am I doing here?

Looking back, everything’s better; at least, I think I can say it as if it’s all behind me now. I could very much engage in this struggle once again when the going gets tough, and I know that I’m not the only one at Penn that’s going through the same thing.

The Tiniest Bit

Maybe this isn’t relatable to you, dear reader. Maybe this makes you pity me and my school, and you scoff at how pathetic a bunch of students gifted with an acceptance to a prestigious institution can be a bunch of deplorable, emotional wrecks.

But this isn’t really about my school and how fucked up it may or may not be. That’s not the main point. Because I’m several thousand miles away from my university, and the kind of illogic I just described presented itself in my class. Someone questioned kindness, not from an outside perspective, but from a personal perspective. Someone questioned kindness in the self-absorbed way, in the “what this means to me” as opposed to “what this might mean for someone else.”

Why do we need to attribute counterarguments against kindness? Is it because you’re a happier person than I am, and you don’t see the point of what a compliment over a dress might possibly mean to this stranger? If so, give the smallest, tiniest bit of happiness to us, share it, please, shower us with it, however little it may be, because there’s a whole lot of people who are hurting inside, who don’t know how to be happy sometimes, myself included. If you aren’t happier than I am, then why question someone who’s trying to share the littlest bit of happiness in the easiest way they can, by an unexpected compliment as a stranger?

I read a graduation speech on New York Times recently, given by George Saunders, and his message, to artlessly sum it up, was, “be kinder to everyone.” That might seem too simple, and that might seem naïve.

But this kindness can break down walls. It can give the tiniest bit of hope to someone who needs it. It’s a nuclear weapon of the best kind, one that can be used to leave a positive effect on someone or something far more than we could care to imagine.

I guess this means that I’m a patriarchal bastard, and I just won’t get it. But I’m okay with that.

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2 thoughts on “The “K” Word

  1. I’ve felt the same way in my time here. Your description of the Penn facade is dead-on, and I really admire your honesty. I think everyone struggles. Most of us are unwilling to admit this to anyone including ourselves, which only perpetuates the phenomenon. We end up feeling isolated despite the fact that we’re swimming in a sea of closet co-strugglers.
    Anyway, this post is great! You definitely get it, and I think you’re a lot smarter than you give yourself credit for.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Sophie! I agree with what you said, and I think a lot of other students share similar views as yours. It’s important that people not only talk about it, but do something about it to try to change the culture, too.

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