In conjunction with writing First and Foremost We Are Women of Academia, playwright E Jeremijenko-Conley wrote a Glossary of Terms that helps to explain how Princeton students view themselves, their social and academic environment, and their interactions:
HONOR AND SHAME
Never speak of personal happiness or success. It is considered offensive. Instead, when asked how one is doing, the honorable action is to recite a laundry list of assignments. If one does not have assignments, one invents them. A truly successful response would most likely include mention of how little one has slept. It is common for the conversation to devolve into a competition of suffering. This is the inverse of many other elite institutions of higher education (c.f. Stanford University), and American culture in general, where floating duck syndrome is the norm. (On the surface, a duck seems to be floating along peacefully. However, the truth is that underneath the water the animal is paddling feverishly.) As a general rule, remember that this is a culture where shame is normalized. Perhaps this is because high levels of ambition are present in the population (and ambition is merely shame for one’s present self that has not achieved the expected or hoped for social status).
Princetonians are separated from their familial and home contexts within the total institution that is the college. Due to extreme age segregation, the young Princetonian is only able to fully humanize other 18-22-year-olds in his/her mind. It is common to overhear townies or professors confessing feelings of invisibility. Because students are removed from intergenerational familial relations, they scramble for a youthful replacement to such social structure. Ergo eating clubs exist. A re-socialization process commences. Eating clubs sort individuals through the bicker process (in which current members evaluate sophomores for entry). Bicker rituals vary between each club. For some, there are ten hour-long interviews, for others, a series of tests (such as swallowing a goldfish or singing on stage). Once accepted into the group, the individual is economically destabilized (eating clubs cost roughly 10,000 USD per annum) and sometimes further hazed. (There are rumors that in one eating club, all new male members are taken into a room and slapped by every male club member. By the end, their backs are pink and bleeding.) The individual is then rebuilt within the total institution of the eating club (which itself is embedded within the total institution of college); this re-socialization infuses her/him with social capital, nourishment, alcohol or other illegal substances, and friendship. Members obtain the ultimate right: to give out “passes” to non-members.
If one encounters an acquaintance it is necessary to perform the obligatory greeting rite of stating with affected earnestness, “We should get a meal.” Now, this does not translate to an actual obligation to consume foodstuff with the person to whom it is directed but rather is the equivalent of “How are you doing?” in American vernacular English. That is, it is socially necessary to utter but entails no future obligation nor an honest response.
SOCIALIZATION AND TRUST
Think of connection as divided into three categories: intellectual, physical, and emotional. One might expect the majority of the undergraduate population to prioritize intellectual connection. However, this is not the case. Instead, the physical, geographic connection is venerated. Because of this, there are two forms of locational socializing, neither of which involve verbal intercourse: going out to the “street” (a block of eating club mansions in which the pupils consume alcohol) or studying together. This time—spent together in silence or amidst throbbing music—is how one builds trust and comfort. Verbal conversation—especially if intellectual or academic in nature—can spook the cautious Princetonian away, as it evokes the painful, traumatic circumstances of precept. (Class is heavily associated with negative emotions, as most Princetonians, whose high school-aged self-worth was entirely founded on academic success, are met with grade-deflated GPAs in college.)
It is clear that status consumes Princetonians. Veblen’s polemic treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class posited that the demonstration of high social position often manifested itself through the outward display of useless objects and activities in a practice he called, “conspicuous consumption.” One hundred years later, economic inequality is higher than ever before but material goods are plentiful. As Elizabeth Currid-Halkett writes in The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, many activities originally labeled conspicuous consumption are now performed by a much larger faction of the public (such as wearing name-brand clothes or driving fancy cars). As a result of its normativity, conspicuous consumption is no longer solely associated with the very wealthy; indeed, according to Currid-Halkett, the wealthy forgo brand names and appropriate working-class practices (thrift-shopping) and global cultures (yoga) while deepening the class divide (buying organic heirloom tomatoes and free range chicken for their families and deploying tutors and test-prep for their offspring). Equally damaging, both these cultures exist in different pockets of Princeton: Inconspicuous conception manifests in Terrace, for example, while in some other social spaces, Veblen’s rule appears to still hold. Students quickly learn to rebrand for country club wealth cues—that is, everything must have a clear label indicating its worth. Such leisure class conspicuous consumption manifests in the form of Canada Goose and Moncler jackets, Patagonia, Sperrys, and Vineyard Vines.