On Cliques

I want you to ask yourself a series of personal questions right now. How many new people have you talked to in the last two weeks? Is there a table in D-hall that you and your main group of friends like to call ‘ours’? Do you all get visibly angry when some ‘other’ people take ‘your’ table? When was the last time you had an in-depth conversation with someone who was not associated with the college? If your answers are anything like mine, then you don’t really want to share them.

I’ll be the first to admit it. I’m a weak man-boy and change is scary. But the scariest form of change is new people. More than a horde of tarantulas in my underwear, I’m scared of being forced to interact with people I never realized existed. At least I used to be. I was once the most awkward kid I knew, but after a suspiciously large number of awkward interactions, I realized something: Nearly everyone my age, even the popular kids, thought that they were the most awkward people they knew. That pretty-boy Australian who lifted regularly and had sway with all those tenth grade gals was just as awkward of a fuck as the skinny wannabe-rapper Indian boy. I always thought growing up would get me right. Growing up would make me know what to say in every situation and have a basic understanding of people. I would no longer be struggling to articulate myself in a comprehensive manner. And, in a way, I was right. But it wasn’t ‘growing up’ that made me comfortable in social settings. It was recognizing that everyone is in the same boat. Understanding and accepting that you and most other people around you have yet to reach any concrete conclusions about our existence, motivation, and exactly what we want is crucial to being able to navigate people. Being at ease with that concept, along with having a mentality of versatility and a decent mastery of speech (which is different from writing, so don’t hate), is the crucial factor that has pushed me to the ‘socially competent stage’. And although I might have reached that stage at the same time that many would consider me a ‘grown up,’ correlating the two would be a premature step that Professor Kuiper (She’s a gem—take her Stats class, shameless plug) would be ashamed of. It would also neglect all those awkward ‘grown-ups’ that inhabit Grinnell.

Now for some controversial assertions:

  1. Grinnell as well as other similar ‘elite’ institutes attract a higher amount of socially awkward people.
  2. Cliques are natural, and trying to break them is futile.
  3. The divide between athletes and non-athletes is, in effect, similar to the divide between town and school. Both are natural, and trying to bridge them is futile.

Let me break apart my assertions. The claim that a lot of socially awkward people would love to believe is that the ‘smarter’ you are, the more socially inept you are. Why? The idea is that the smarter one is, the more he, she, or ze analyzes social interactions. The more one questions existence, relationships, and society in general, the more one experiences anxiety before, during, and especially after social encounters. This leads to social awkwardness, as well as just general unhappiness (hands up if you can’t sleep at night because you’re wondering why you exist). Understanding humans is difficult, and I highly doubt anyone has truly mastered that art. We now have to ask ourselves who these ‘elite’ institutions like Grinnell attract. They attract individuals who meet their definition of intelligence. The ones who overanalyze and are hyperaware of everything around them. The very people who by virtue of those traits are more socially insecure (see logic above). The concept is amplified with the limited number of human beings present in this small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere. It is so easy to lose oneself in the friend group one gets comfortable with during NSO. I’ve met a fourth year who hadn’t really expanded past the initial burst of friends she made during the first few weeks of school. It really sucked when she took a year off and came back to realize that she no longer had friends in college. I’m proud to say that I’m now a friend of that fourth year, but it’s only because I took the initiative – initiative that I’m sad to say most individuals lack.

Some of the socially awkward just fall through the cracks of the College’s limited number of cliques and resign themselves to days in and days out alone. There are plenty of individuals who regularly eat alone (Science says this is bad, YOU WILL DIE EARLIER!!!). At college, especially one of this size, interaction is even less mandatory than in high school, and it’s easy to shrink into yourself. This makes the limited social interaction one has even more anxiety inducing, thus making one even more likely to shrink into solitude or into the comfortable friend group.

Cliques arise out of ease and comfort. Taking the initiative to make new friends is difficult even for the socially competent. What would you talk about? Do you have a reason to approach new people? Clubs require commitment that takes away from our already limited amount of time. Why not just stick with that group of friends who already knows everything about you, and won’t take anything you say personally? It’s not like they live far away or anything, and if you have an activity you all do together, like theater, acapella, or sports, you always have a backup conversation ready. Conversations can be very cumbersome burdens. Trying to join a new group is even more intimidating. How do you just start hanging out with a new group of people? Do you just sit with them at d-hall and join in on their conversations? If that is the case, rest assured that I will not be joining any new groups in my time here.


All that I spoke about is from my own personal experience, and I, according to everyone I meet, am an extrovert. So to delve further into the social experience of Grinnell, I interviewed a self-identified introvert. My interviewee was thoroughly dismayed at the prospect of breaking her clique. She would generally befriend anyone who attempted to befriend her, but personally striving towards friendship was something she just would not do. It would take too much time away from her current friends, and weaken the bonds that she spent so long forging. In other words, the Grinnell clique culture was perfect for her. ‘Stick to who you like, stay away from those you don’t, and don’t worry about other people.’ I will say more or less the same phrase with a slightly more negative connotation in my own conclusion. Grinnell’s social culture fits for some (namely introverts), and not so much for others (extroverts).*

There are two notable divides present at this college: athlete/non-athlete and town/college. People often cite the lack of a bridge between these divides as cause for the misconceptions and stereotypes held by both sides. Male athletes are rapists, South campus is filled with stoners, townies are ignorant racists, and so on. I can’t even imagine what some townies think of us college students. But when do-gooders attempt to bridge this divide, they forget the reason this divide exists. What reason does any student have to really get to know townies? You might say work or church, but the truth is a majority of students will never have a good reason to associate with someone who doesn’t go to or work for Grinnell College. In fact, there are many students who rarely leave the confines of this four block radius. We simply do not have a reason to really get to know townies. And the ones we do know are the ones who voluntarily come to our events. Despite how much we wish it were true, Crosby (the old guy with a cool beard who wears political science t-shirts and comes to most of our campus events, discussed here) does not represent all townies. Most do not come to our events, just as most of us do not go to town events. Trying to bridge this divide is futile, in the same way that trying to end self-segregation is futile.

The athletes/non-athlete divide is also self-segregated. When you spend literally half your day with the same group of human beings, it becomes less of a choice and more of necessity. You simply do not have time to expand past this group of individuals you spend a majority of your time with. Athletes stick with athletes for same reasons townies stick with townies and Grinnellians stick with Grinnellians. SGA and city hall may keep trying to make the two groups comingle, but it won’t happen. That is because it feels comfortable, change is hard, and there’s very little reason to deviate. If you can get past that, good for you, but understand that most people won’t.

Dun Dun Dun

Conclusion Time:

This is the social atmosphere I see at this school, and I think it has both its pros and cons. I’m not calling on you to leave your comfort zone, but simply asking you to reflect on our little community. Is it really what you want?


*I speak for all extroverts.


  1. I’d definitely call for people to leave their comfort zones. If, at Grinnell, we only grow our knowledge but stop challenging ourselves, we limit our experiences. These divides are only as large as our minds make them. I’ve made countless good friends (both athletes and non-athletes) by simply smiling and saying “hello” to people while getting my food, with no one ever responding negatively.

    – A former extreme introvert

  2. I think you should expand your test group. I dated a ‘townie’ for over a year and I attend many community events, and so do a lot of my friends in and outside of my clique.

  3. I am a townie AND a Grinnell alum (2012) and I just want to say, having had the experience of both worlds, that Grinnell college students DO have a good reason to get to know the townies: many of them are warm, charismatic, community-oriented people whose lives and businesses might just be more interesting than college kids think. Just remember…Midwest towns will be the last place of refuge in a nuclear war/zombie attack. Make friends there while you can.

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