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.