Social Annealing

by James Somers, October 20, 2010

The first two weeks of college are exceptional for a lot of reasons. But there’s one phenomenon that stands out. It’s as peculiar and as powerful and as rare as magic. [1]

I’ll call it “social annealing” because it so resembles the process by which metals are heated—their particles freed into a loose homogenous jumble—and then recrystallized.

It’s the phenomenon whereby college freshmen, having just been ejected from the world they know and loosed upon a campus they don’t, mutually decide, in the heat of their eager anxiety, to willingly engage every stranger as a friend.

It happens in the dorms, the cafeteria, coffee shops, classrooms, libraries, and just around town: students with no prior connection approach one another and strike up conversations. Everyone tries everyone out.

Groups do form, but they’re not the kind of groups we’re used to—they congeal and dissolve with remarkable ease. So a lone student can approach five others without feeling like he’s intruding; two sets of roommates can combine; a pack can split with no friction.

Think of how bizarre that is. Think of what it would take, for instance, to introduce yourself to a group of four friends, none of whom you’d ever met. It’s practically preposterous.

That’s because in normal circumstances, confronting strangers without an overt excuse—the elevator breaks down, say, or a plane is canceled—is an act of aggression. If not outright threatening, it’s intrusive, or at the very least distracting.

Even in settings that seem to encourage mixing, like parties or bars, it’s not kosher for a person to engage just anybody—one must abide all kinds of cues and conventions and rules; contact must be made with a measure of finesse.

Which is to say that nothing you can find elsewhere in the workaday world even resembles the two-week college free-for-all, the strange fever in which everyone is basically pleased as hell to meet everyone else.

It almost sounds like a fantasy. But I assure you it happened. I’m not a spectacularly outgoing guy, but for the first two weeks of my freshman year at the University of Michigan, I introduced myself to just about everyone I saw. When I’d go down to the cafeteria, I could sit anywhere. At parties, on the way to class, in the dorms, etc., I—like everyone else—would flit from group to group in a crazy kind of convivial Brownian motion. Our social graph was effectively amorphous—fully connected. We were open to each other in a way that I imagine swingers must be open to sex, or hippies to psychedelics.

* * *

It’s probably worth asking how this happens, or why. I don’t think it’s all that complicated:

  1. Bizarre things are bound to happen when you throw a large number of eighteen year-olds into close quarters, especially if you don’t give them any work to do.

  2. For the most part, nobody knows anybody when they first arrive at college. And even if you did know some people, say, a few other kids from your high school, it’s good sense to avoid them for a little while, if only to participate in the social madness I’ve been describing.

    Which means everyone is effectively looking to make a fresh start, to find replacements for their now-disbanded troupe of close dependable friends.

    The trick is that everyone knows this. They know that everyone is in the same boat. And that pervasive common knowledge—where for any two people, A knows that B knows that A knows… that they’re both looking to make friends—is enough to fuel cold approaches.

  3. Freshmen are called “freshmen” for a reason: they’re fresh; they don’t yet have a reputation. Everyone understands that, and they understand that first impressions can stick. So it makes sense that they’re unusually warm and friendly. It’s the best way to keep their social options open.

  4. There is what I’ll call the “New Year’s Resolution Effect,” where kids just entering college decide, in light of their radical dislocation and the discontinuity from their life at home, to change themselves in fairly significant ways. In particular, they tend to commit to being more extroverted than they were in high school. It’s a common enough ambition to accelerate the pandemonium.

* * *

I mostly wanted to articulate this phenomenon because of something that happened last weekend. After seventeen months away I was back in Ann Arbor, that great college town and the site of my alma mater, ostensibly for a big football game, but really to reunite with lots of old friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen since the day we walked the Big House in our robes.

It was quite nostalgic. I really loved that place—still love it—and a lot of what I did that weekend was to reminisce, to reconnect with a mass of pleasant memories and in some cases to relive them.

But I also thought of all the things I didn’t do, of all the people I never met. I thought of how little I took advantage of Ann Arbor’s unbelievable density of young, curious kids with lots of free time and energy, all part of that same proud collective: students of the University of Michigan.

Walking around campus and the town, then, I had this remarkable urge, much like the one I had as an incoming freshman—but here I was older and more confident and more capable—to engage with everyone I saw.

But not much came of it. I wasn’t quite as bold as I could have been, for sure, but nor was the place as ripe as I’d imagined. I didn’t understand why until a friend explained it: the kids I’d seen that day had done the same thing we’d done, what we would later come to vaguely regret—they had annealed, and settled, and made themselves a home among a certain set of friendly faces. In the bargain they’d retired from the frenzy of their freshman year, the thrill of radical openness. And I had become a stranger once again.


[1] Why only two weeks? There are a few reasons: things in general have a way of lasting two weeks; school starts to get serious after about two weeks; and two weeks is just enough time for solid social bonds to form, for kids to get comfortable in their surroundings, and for everyone to pretty much sample everyone else in their little pocket of the campus. After two weeks, the magic’s over and the metal cools.