Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

Getting Personal: A Little (Ruthless) Mocking Only Made Me A Better Person

Today’s guest essay comes from humor writer Dennis Hong.

I confess. Back in college, I was in a fraternity. And yes, I engaged in some of the dumbass behaviors you probably associate with fraternities. Even today, friends sometimes express surprise when they find out that I was a “frat boy.” Other times, when I’m caught in moments of douchiness, I’m told that I’m “still such a frat boy.”

But, I have a dirty secret to tell: I’m proud to be frat boy. I have exactly zero regrets about being in a fraternity, because my fraternity made me the guy I am today. You’ve heard the expression, “Kids can be so cruel”? You learn the meaning of “cruel” when you live in a house with 40 other guys, many of whom spend a solid portion of their waking hours in varying stages of belligerent drunkenness.

I came into UCLA as an awkward 18-year-old virgin, who had amassed arguably half a notch on his bedpost through high school. Not surprisingly, the teasing over my lack of experience was fairly relentless.
And since I still had no clue how to approach women at that point, my prospects for evading the mockery anytime soon were bleak. The problem wasn’t that I was too shy to talk to people. The problem was that I was too shy to talk to strangers. In high school, there’s really no such a thing as a stranger. Even if you don’t know everyone at the school, you tend to know of almost everyone. So, you never have to suffer the dread of attempting to carry on a conversation with a person you just met.

In college, it’s all about meeting new people. When your house parties draw 500 guests, probably 490 of those guests are going to be strangers to you. Even during exchanges (closed parties between a fraternity and a sorority), you’re not going to know most of the girls now milling about your living room. If you don’t go up and talk to them, you’re the loser hanging out in the corner, taking shots with all the other shy guys.

I still remember my first exchange. A busload of girls was dropped off at my fraternity house, and… I spent the entire night getting sloshed. At one point, I did accidentally make eye contact with a girl (which is to say, she caught me checking her out as I was walking past her). She smiled this beautiful, warm smile and said “hi.” I said “hi” right back (at least, I managed that). But then… I just kept right on walking, barely breaking my stride as I headed straight for the rows of waiting shot glasses on the counter behind her. Because I knew that if I stopped, my conversational ability had me at “hello.”

Not surprisingly, those of us who were too shy to talk to strangers got mocked. Incessantly. But here’s the thing: in spite of it all, I never stopped believing that these guys had my back. I think they saw me as the awkward kid brother, wearing swim goggles and a beach towel cape, scampering through the house going, “nananananananana… Batmaaaaaan!” They would tease me and belittle me in private. But, I knew they ultimately were looking out for me.

Like on my birthday one year, when I found myself sitting alone on the curb outside a bar. A girl came up to me, and I ranted to her for two minutes about how I was waiting for my “bro” Rich, and I had no idea where he was, and I was annoyed that he had totally ditched me. I remember her laughing at me and wishing me happy birthday, right before I passed out. As I found out two days later (when I finally regained full consciousness), Rich was standing right behind me the entire time. He was propping me up with his leg so that I could talk to this girl, because I was too drunk to even sit upright.
Stories like this left me no doubt that my fraternity brothers made fun of me not because they were malevolent, but because they wanted me to stop being such a damned wallflower. And somehow, that made the difference.

I decided that anything — even getting shot down and embarrassed by one girl after another — was better than standing in the corner. And I certainly had examples, both good and bad. There were guys in the house who would blink, and girls would flock to them. There were also guys who were so indiscriminately aggressive that they had no problem approaching a group of girls, hitting on one, getting rejected, then turning to the girl’s friend, standing right next to her, and attempting the same pickup line.
We ran the gamut. And I absorbed it all. I quietly assimilated the ways the cool guys carried themselves. I took mental notes on how not to be the creepy guy. I made myself approach random people and chat with them. By my junior year, I even had my first girlfriend.

Still, my crowning achievement at UCLA came halfway through my senior year, when a girl I had just met five minutes earlier looked me straight in the eyes, grinned, and said, “You’re charming.” Because honestly, it wasn’t about scoring with women (though, admittedly, that did play a key role in my motivation). It was about social skills. It was about overcoming my anxieties, finding the courage to approach strangers, and learning how to carry on a conversation with them. These are the skills I still use today and will never have to let go. All because the incessant teasing I had to endure gave me the motivation to stop hiding and learn to be friendly and outgoing.

So, call me a “frat boy” if you want. But “frat boy” is certainly better than whatever the hell I was before I became one.

*Dennis Hong is a relationships and comedy writer, a label that can be either redundant or an oxymoron, depending on your perspective. He blogs here and runs a group dating advice site here. This essay goes out to his Sigma Pi bros.



40 comments… add one
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    MaterialsGirl July 18, 2012, 3:33 pm

    talking to new, strange people (along with learning how to deal with difficult people in all sorts of situations) was also one of the best things about being in a sorority. I learned a lot of patience and people skills from sharing a house/food/chores/budgets etc with 40-50 other women. Let me tell you one thing: my mother teaching me how to clean properly was the greatest gift ever and I tried to bestow some of those general hints and tricks to other girls. We had girls come in not knowing how to sweep (i shit you not). By the time they left, at least they could clean a bathroom!

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  • kerrycontrary July 18, 2012, 3:40 pm

    This is why college is awesome and I’m so glad I went to a big school. Even if you aren’t in a frat, going to frat parties teaches you how to meet new people and talk to people you know nothing about. It improved my social skills so that I was able to carry on a conversation with anyone. Maybe I was totally bored during that conversation, but I could still talk to that person until my friend/boyfriend/whatever came back from the bathroom. While I wasn’t in a frat or sorority, I can see a lot of advantages of joining one. Many people I work with got their jobs through sorority sisters, and you easily have someone to hang out with in most American cities.

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  • ele4phant July 18, 2012, 3:40 pm

    My school doesn’t have a Greek system. So my perception of them has always been soley based on what the media and entertainment industry has presented to me (well and one scary frat party that I went to when visiting another university). In other words, I thought they were pretty awful.

    But after leaving school and being in the real world, I’ve meet multiple wonderful people and have been SHOCKED to learn they went through the Greek system. Not only did they participate in Greek life, they LOVED it. They’d even credit it with making them the people they are today. So, I’ve had to reexamine my assumptions. If such awesome people could come out of frats and sororities, they can’t be all bad. They might even be good.

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    • kerrycontrary July 18, 2012, 3:55 pm

      Frat parties are rarely like the movies. Just like all of the movies with high school parties.

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      • ele4phant July 18, 2012, 4:06 pm

        Yeah, I’ve learned over time not to trust the impressions movies gave me in my childhood. I grew up in a small remote town, and I thought Southern California was either: a) rich white folk haven a la Clueless, or b) gang ridden hell whole a la Boyz in the Hood.

        Imagine my surprise that tons of middle class, middle of the road folk a lot like my family lived there too.

    • cporoski July 18, 2012, 5:01 pm

      Well that is the thing. Everyone sees the movies and doesn’t see the actuality. Evidently, it is more dangerous to be in the band then in greek life. Every President except for two have been in a fraternity since they were founded in the early 1800s. The same numbers show up in the CEOs of fortune 500 companies. If you are going to persuade your country to vote for you, you need to first learn how to manage 50-200 sorority/fraternity members.

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    • ele4phant July 18, 2012, 5:25 pm

      I will say, there is a push to establish a Greek system at my school (back for round two – grad school!) and I wouldn’t support it if it came to a vote.

      I’ve long since given up the stereotypes about it, so that’s not the issue anymore, but as a result of no Greek system the Associated Student’s clubs at my school are really strong, the social scene here is unique and has a lot of interesting overlaps and opportunities to get involved in all sorts of things. My understanding is that a frat or sorority demands a lot of your time, and I think that would weaken the really unique active club scene that has developed. People wouldn’t be able to be heavily invested in multiple clubs simultaneously if they also had obligations to their frat, or sorority.

      Again, it seems like the Greek system can really do a lot to establish communities, but a different way of achieving that has sprung up in that void. Seeing as we’re the only school in my state without Greek life, I think it would be nice if things were left as they are. If someone really wants Greek life, well there are comparable institutions to go to in the state.

      But if it turns out the majority of the student body would want that, well that’s how’d go, I guess.

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        MaterialsGirl July 18, 2012, 6:23 pm

        You would think that would be the case but it’s not. We were required to be involved in another organization. It was rare that the SGA president wasn’t also a member of the Greek life. Currently, five of the girls are presidents of other organizations. This wasn’t just at our sorority either, my brother goes to a state school and his fraternity requires much of the same campus involvmement.

      • Matcha July 19, 2012, 8:39 am

        My school also doesn’t have a Greek system, and I like it that way. We have a college system that provides the same leadership opportunities to manage ~300 people, but because the mix of a college is random but balanced I think you get a different group than if you had a self-selecting body such as fraternity or sorority. There are pros and cons to each, as some years we had friction develop between different people. It’s similar is some ways because we each have our own traditions, and you do develop a unique sense of community.

      • Dennis Hong July 19, 2012, 10:58 am

        I was in several organizations myself, and the difference between them and my fraternity — and the reason I got so much more socially from my fraternity — is the relative lack of diversity in many of these organizations. If you’re in some sort of activist group, or a sports club, or any other sort of student organization, you have a commonality that immediately binds you together. In a fraternity, you meet people you have absolutely nothing in common with (aside from both being at UCLA). Trying to find common ground with someone like that was the real challenge to me.

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    Will.i.am July 18, 2012, 4:55 pm

    Very true. I wasn’t in a frat, but I had a close group of guys back in 2004, and I’m still friends with today, that taught me what I know now. I was so shy at 21 and had no idea how to talk to girls or even get girls to notice me. I learned how to casually talk to girls and not come off so shy and the rest is history.

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  • Kristina July 18, 2012, 5:00 pm

    My school doesn’t have Greek life at all, but I can see the benefit of such organizations. I’m a student ambassador for my school–we do a lot of charity events in the community, host galas, and it’s basically a mini PR program. The way I interact with people from all walks of life has definitely taught me a lot about how to carry myself better, and be more fearless when speaking to larger audiences. I’m quite friendly and social, but when I was younger, I was painfully shy, and I started growing out of it, however I still didn’t think of myself as outgoing until I was thrust into such social situations. I think it’s important for young people to get involved in similar programs to prepare for the real world.

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  • SherBear July 18, 2012, 5:39 pm

    I always grew up with a good impression of fraternities since my dad was a frat guy at Michigan. He would entertain me as a kid with stories of the antics they used to play on each other while we watched Animal House (his frat was like the Delta house and they had a close neighbor just like the Omegas). He also went to an all-boys boarding school for high school so sometimes I am shocked he has any social maturity 🙂 I wasn’t a Greek in college because I was on a sports team (I went to a large jock school that also has a large Greek system) but being with/living with your teammates day and day out gives you the same type of social bonds that the Greek system does – and it’s great to have a close knit family at a large school!

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  • Savannah July 18, 2012, 9:09 pm

    I have mixed feelings on this post- mostly because I was around people in my college years who spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to defend the greek system. I get it, it’s not the root of all evil on a campus but its also not gods gift to men, and generally the people heavily involved in any campus organization in which people also lived together basically had similar experiences and loved it just as much as any ‘frat boy’.
    What I do question is the underlying argument within this post if only because I’ve heard numerous arguments lately on why forms of bullying build character and should not be so regulated in public schools. Now Dennis did not exactly portray what happened to him as bullying but he did use say:
    ‘You learn the meaning of “cruel”, ‘the teasing over my lack of experience was fairly relentless.’ ‘those of us who were too shy to talk to strangers got mocked. Incessantly.’ incessant teasing I had to endure’.
    So while I’m glad Dennis felt like these guys ‘had his back’ I wonder if everyone in his frat came to these conclusions.

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    • Nadine July 19, 2012, 6:58 am

      I couldnt help wondering that either. BUllying is often in the eye of the beholder, and it goes both ways. I was always such a nerd at school, that I thought I went totally under the radar, and I could never be a bully like those mean girls. Then I was thinking the other day about a particularly thoughtless thing I said to a guy about his academic abilities (I meant it as a compliment, I thought he was really smart) and then it turned out he had very bad dyslexia and the reason he left class all the time was not for special credit things, but for help with his tutor.
      I bet he thought I was a bully. whereas I thought I was the victim in school.

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    • Addie Pray July 19, 2012, 8:19 am

      Good points, Savannah.

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    • MsMisery July 19, 2012, 1:00 pm

      I am glad I wasn’t the only one scratching her head over this. I was mostly left wondering what the point was. Is the author defending bullying (aka “cruel” behavior)? Or fraterneties? There’s definitely a difference between the barbs between siblings (blood or Greek) and actual bullying, so this whole post belittles people who are actually bullied, to the point of quitting school or killing themselves. Gold star for you, I guess, for not killing yourself. I’ll keep my personal opinions about the macho atmosphere of frats and sports on campuses to myself, but they certainly don’t help.

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  • Joanna July 19, 2012, 5:13 am

    Now I’m looking back and thinking it may have been better for me to join a sorority than to endure dorm life. I hated living in the dorms. I ended up with a bitch of a roommate who convinced the entire floor and the RAs that I was a bad person and they made the Resident Life department move me to a whole new floor. After hardly making friends with anybody during my first two quarters there, I chose not to pursue a third and dropped out of college entirely because the people were so mean.

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    • kerrycontrary July 19, 2012, 8:43 am

      That sounds horrible! I’m sorry you had such a bad experience in college. My freshman roomate moved out after our first semester and told everyone on the floor that I had been calling her “fat” and “chubby”, which I would NEVER do. Luckily the girl who switched rooms with her and moved in didn’t listen to that stuff and I made great new friends. But that really sucks….

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  • Addie Pray July 19, 2012, 8:24 am

    Sounds like you had a good experience, Dennis! Makes me wish I had joined a frat. … Don’t tell anyone, but in college I pledged a sorority. I hated it. The girls were intimidating. All fancy and rich and experienced and pretty and smart, and they seemed so much older / more mature than me … And I missed my friends in the dorm. So I de-pledged after a quarter. Plus, I couldn’t afford it. It cost $500 a quarter! Now I bet it’s like a $1,000 a quarter.

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    • Dennis Hong July 19, 2012, 10:52 am

      I promise not to tell! It’ll be between you, me… and the Internet.

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      Lili July 19, 2012, 1:24 pm

      I wanted to join a sorority too! My dad refused to pay my fees since he felt that I’d turn into an alcoholic slut if I joined. But as fate would have it, my closest friends here were all in the same sorority at their undergrad. So, I ended up with the sorority sisters anyway. HA–take that dad. Love, your alcoholic slut of a daughter, Lili 😉

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  • macky July 19, 2012, 9:51 am

    I attended what amounts to the best funded fraternity in the world… West Point. We lived a different greek life…more Sparta than Athens, but it made me what I am today. I would not trade my experience there for anything in the world…

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  • Anna July 19, 2012, 10:16 am

    I still can’t bring myself to think of any bullying or similar experience as positive. I know it’s supposedly how guys “bond” with each other but bullying never made me feel good about myself. It made me want to hide in a cave and die so no one could tell me how weird I am or how imperfect my body is. I know about all of my imperfections and don’t particularly want to hear about them 24/7.

    My college experience was very atypical. I started out going to a local branch of my university and living at home to save money. I chose that route because my parents promised they would pay for it if I did that. After a few semesters, I had taken all the classes I could take at that branch and had to go to the main campus to finish my undergrad. Since the main campus is about a hour and a half drive from my parents’ house and I was ready to move out anyway, I thought it was time. I had also met a very special guy, and we decided to move out of our parents’ houses together and get our first apartment. Suddenly, my parents decided their promises didn’t matter and cut off my aid completely. I had more than half of a degree left to finish and the government would only give me enough aid to take 2 classes per semester (you know that “expected family contribution” bullshit that fucks you over if your family isn’t contributing) so I ended taking 5 more years of part-time classes while working full time. I didn’t really have a lot of time to party. I grew up a lot during that time and learned that I can’t depend on anyone but myself (especially my parents). It was a good lesson to learn but I’ve still never forgiven them for bailing on me. I’m still glad I never lived in a dorm room with a stranger or went through sorority hazing. I did make friends in college, I just preferred ones who were nice.

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  • Russ July 19, 2012, 10:53 am

    Concur, Life without Brotherhood is colder and darker….

    Pi Kappa Phi for Life!

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  • Lexington Green July 19, 2012, 11:45 am

    This is great — and it gets better. I joined my fraternity thirty years ago. Many of the guys, including many who came along much later, are still my friends. Stay in touch with your brothers, send Christmas cards, stay in touch with the chapter, keep the bonds going. You will have their back, and they will have yours, for life.

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  • Dennis Hong July 19, 2012, 10:50 am

    There’s a huge difference between teasing and bullying. Please don’t read into this something that was never there.

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    • Russ July 19, 2012, 10:55 am

      Agree, we teased and as one of the older brothers, I would always ensure that the newer brothers and pledges knew where the line was and who they coould reach out to…
      You can’t build a bond thru hazing…you can build men thru adverisity….

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    • Savannah July 19, 2012, 4:09 pm

      I know you didn’t classify your teasing as bullying but its comments like this “you can build men thru adversity” which make me uneasy about the underlying issues you’re discussing. *especially * surrounding ideas about what is necessary to turn boys into ‘men’

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        Katie July 19, 2012, 4:17 pm

        Isn’t that statement true though for everyone? You can turn in to an adult (boy into man, girl into woman, whatever) through adversity? Hard times builds character? I mean aren’t there like a million cliches for that?

      • Dennis Hong July 19, 2012, 4:40 pm

        Yes. That’ s why I think people are reading WAY more into this than they should be.

        I KNOW what bullying is. As part of my job, I’m trained to identify bullying.

        What I described is NOT bullying.

      • Dennis Hong July 19, 2012, 4:12 pm

        And yet, you’re ignoring the statement right before that:

        “You can’t build a bond thru hazing….”

  • Bilwick July 19, 2012, 12:28 pm

    Maybe it’s just me, and that I’m a Baby Boomer who went to college before colleges became basically Corporate Kindergartens, and you not only had to read books to graduate but you graduated actually WANTING to read books; or maybe the fact that I live in the South, But most of the frat boys I encounter seem like goons. And wearing a baseball cap backwards doesn’t exactly make the fashion statement “I’m a smart, independent thinker and on my way home to read the classics.”

    Again, maybe it’s just me.

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    • ele4phant July 19, 2012, 12:51 pm

      Uh…I’m not a boomer, but my parents are, and I’ve heard their stories. Maybe your college experience was a pure and genuine intellectual pursuit, but don’t tell me that during the 60s no college students were doing dumb shit, getting high, partying, and experimenting with sex.

      I agree there are many issues with today’s higher education system, and many kinds gets get shuttled off to college when its not right the right choice for them, but give me a break.

      Also, someone wearing a backwards cap doesn’t look someone who could be a smart independent thinker? Are you having actual conversations with these young men? Observing what they do, 100 percent of the time? Or are you making a snap judgement based on appearance? Some of them aren’t very intellectually gifted, its true, but some are. Trust me, some of them are arrogantly and annoyingly intelligent. But you’ve written them off because they don’t fit the visual model acceptable to you.


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  • ari July 19, 2012, 1:51 pm

    my first cradle was the bottom drawer of the vice-president of the fraternity’s dresser BKA My Dad. Who met my mom during the summer, and moved her in to his room, and married her in front of his whole frat. The presiding judge was one of the dad’s of one of the pledges. His parents completely did not approve. But- two kids, and two careers nearing retirement later, I say ” Go, Frat Boys! I owe you my life!”

    And my dad was a total geek with absolutely no social skills before he joined his frat, too. Bottle-thick glasses, too much drinking, no girl skills. One semester in, he had his own tuxedo, one year in he began his jello pranks, two years in he learned bridge, got into a game with his prof,- and that’s how he passed statistics. He’d’ve flunked out, otherwise, b/c his brain is built for words and pics, not numbers.

    As for backwards baseball caps. Please- those are the guys who took me to poetry readings, the opera, to foreign authors holding readings. Get a grip! It’s not all pure and whiney style. Drunken, trashed guys in a falling down old house? They didn’t come from that, they aren’t going to continue like that. This is their wild desert island, with parrots, pirates and rum barrels. It’s their Peter Pan time. It ends. They know it. Why do you think they enjoy it so much?

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  • Bilwick July 19, 2012, 4:24 pm

    “Maybe your college experience was a pure and genuine intellectual pursuit, but don’t tell me that during the 60s no college students were doing dumb shit, getting high, partying, and experimenting with sex.” Of course there were. And my college experience wasn’t all intellectual pursuit: a lot of it was socializing, meeting different types of people, etc. –experiences I found in many ways as broadening as classes. In fact, I would have loved to have gotten in on those “experiments” with sex; but I went to a NYC “commuter college” so I missed out on a lot of that dorm-room hijinks.

    “Also, someone wearing a backwards cap doesn’t look someone who could be a smart independent thinker?” Nope. He could be smart, I suppose, but independent? It screams “mindless trendoid” to me.

    “Are you having actual conversations with these young men?” Not if I can help it; but I am around them a lot because I live in an area where a lot of them are. And I’m not so old that I can’t hear. I guess if you can call using the word “dude” a lot “sounding smart,” then, yes, they sound smart.

    But relax, ele4phant. My post was simply impressionistic, based on my own experience. Your mileage may vary.

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    • ele4phant July 19, 2012, 9:00 pm

      I can understand living around college students can give you a jilted and negative view of some of these kids. I’m only a few years out of college – but I found that when I returned to graduate school a few years later I could only tolerate so much of twenty year old when they’re in a group. Nothing makes you a cranky old lady faster than dealing with your upstairs neighbor’s weekly parties (btw Hero earplugs? Ah-mazing). And yes, when you’re ease-dropping on them in public, their conversations can be so incredibly inane.

      But, please realize that your superficial impressions could be off. Following fashion trends at a young age and using a casual vernacular when you’re surrounded with your peers is not a good gauge for someone’s intelligence. Its just not.

      One of the most humbling experiences I’ve had is getting into an in-class debate with some of these bro’s, smugly assuming I’d easily have the upper hand, but surprise surprise, they were far better informed, articulate, and confident debaters. I’ve also TAed for undergraduate classes and it was shocking at times to discover who were my best students. The brief encounters you have with these guys (or their seemingly ditzy female counterparts) out and about town could easily be inaccurate.

      So be annoyed with them (I still am!) and their childish behavior, but don’t write them off so easily.

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    • Dennis Hong July 19, 2012, 10:48 pm

      Dude, man. You have SERIOUSLY got to kick your bigotry addiction.

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  • Bilwick July 20, 2012, 4:06 pm

    “But, please realize that your superficial impressions could be off.”

    Indeed. Although they seem to be superficial impressions of superficial people. And a further thought: if the people I am “eaves-dropping on” (if over-hearing loudmouths one just happens to be passing by could be considered “eaves-dropping”) aren’t frat-boys, why would they be dressing like them in what seems to be a generally-acknowledged frat-boy uniform?

    Not that frat-boys are the only conformists I observe. The Sun Belt city I live in is very tribalistic, with the five or six tribes that make up the population (Ghetto Black, Suburban Yuppie, White Redneck, etc.) pretty much dressing in uniform to establish their tribal identities. Once I observed a herd of young male suburbanites actually daring to venture inside the city limits, probably for some sporting event (sure, they could be going to the symphony, or the opera, or to a performace of KING LEAR–but I kind of doubt it), and it was like I was witnessing the invarion of some new super-hero group, The Legion of Cargo-Shorts. There was some minor variation (most wore polo-shirts of various colors, a few t-shirts, etc.)
    but it was like they were shot out of a machine. It reminded me of a line from Spenser P.I.: “Oh, how cute–did your mommy dress you all alike before you left the house?”

    (I don’t know if the Legion consisted of frat-boys or yuppies. They seemed to be of that transitional age when frat-boys become yuppies.)

    To me being young is about finding your individual identity and resisting conformity. These kids seem hell-bent on jettisoning whatever individuality they have and losing themselves in the tribe.

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