Small talk, big problem

Everybody loves a good story. You know, the sort that yanks you to the edge of your seat, gets you asking for the next chapter and leaves you begging for the next one after that. The appeal of a narrative train-wreck or a happily-ever-after is universal, and so these stories become the language we all share. That much is normal and natural – native, even.

But there’s something distinct about the way we tell stories here at the College – the frequency, the salacious urgency, the bizarre righteousness about trading information that we never owned in the first place. Maybe I’ve always believed this, or maybe last week hosted some sort of revelation. Which of those options is accurate is irrelevant for the purposes of this piece – because whether I was learning or re-learning this truth, it happened when an anonymous student stole a pizza van.

Sure, it had the makings of a good story. And so it was told – incorrectly, sexily and frequently – told and retold, tweeted and re-tweeted, until it lost track of itself.  The Record, I think, started or at least sparked the trend this time with its coverage (“Student steals pizza van, police and driver chase suspect,” Feb. 19). Maybe it was phrases like “the student proceeded to hop into the car,” (“hop”, rather than “get” or “sit” or “enter,” because it has the fewest serious connotations) or maybe it was the fact that nearly a third of the piece was focused on the booming pizza industry in Williamstown rather than the huge implications and disciplinary concerns for the student, herself or himself.

Either way, this first public incarnation lent itself – I believe more than it needed to, or should have – to becoming the subject of punny Facebook statuses and mocking tweets, whispered conversations and Paresky punch lines.

But here’s the thing about stories: They’ve got characters. And, in this instance and others, those characters are real people. People brilliant and dedicated and impressive enough to be characters of our College, not just our Sunday morning recaps.

Full disclosure, the character in this story is a friend of mine – a character featured in many of my own and most positive stories of the College, a leading role in the stories of people I love. So maybe that’s where the frustration comes from. But I don’t think it’s that simple – I didn’t bristle at the retellings just because she or he is my friend.

And so it wasn’t just my knee-jerk emotional response that gave me pause. Because even hours later, even right now, I keep wondering: Was there really nothing better they could have, we all could have, been talking about? Was that actually the best material for that conversation? This isn’t an op-ed about a student and a pizza van – though I am half disappointed and half furious about how that has been handled – it’s an op-ed about a pretty problematic culture of thoughtless gossip.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m as much a part of it as anyone. Maybe more, if we’re being honest. But that doesn’t strip me of my ability to speak critically about it, or my capacity to wish ruthlessly that it may change. That I may start to change it, in some small way.

At yesterday’s end, I asked myself how many of my conversations were stripped of gossip, were void of name-dropping or guessing games – how many were conversations that let themselves be about two people and the things they’ve come to love. Let me tell you, it was a low number.

But then I got to thinking, what if I had spent all of yesterday’s hours asking a friend how he learned to make artisan breads, not how he knew about last night’s make-outs; asking a classmate when he realized he’d given his heart away, not lost his North Face; asking a mentor why he chose his profession, not his coffee flavor?

Furthermore, what if every alum who sat in his or her cubicle coming up with some witty title for a post about the pizza van story had instead gotten coffee with a colleague? What if every student who discussed it over eggs at the Chef’s Hat had instead brainstormed a new item for his or her “senior spring bucket list?” What if every Record editor who debated over it in the boardroom had instead thought critically about other pervasive campus issues?

It’s certain that I could, almost definite that the Record could and probable that most of us could be better about the stories we ask for, the ones we choose to retell and how we decide to do it. Chances are that the tweetable ones – the ones wedged into 160 characters – are either not the most important ones or not the fairest retellings of the important ones.

So yes, everybody loves a good story. But you know what’s even better than telling someone else’s? Making your own.

And so that’s what I’ll be challenging myself to do this week – come join me in doing it, come ask me how it’s going. Maybe we can recap about stories that actually belong to us – if we’re lucky, we can even do it over pizza.

Emily Calkins ’14 is an English and political science double major from Baltimore, Md. She lives on Spring St.

  • Molly

    I respectfully disagree.

    Sure, I think that stories poking fun at the student are unnecessary, but I don’t think they should be vilified. The vast majority of discussions I heard about the pizza incident were not petty or derisive like you’ve suggested – they were serious discussions about privilege on an elite college campus. They were questions about the duties of Williams college students to behave respectfully with our surrounding communities. They were questions about the implications of feeling entitled to use the people whose labor we rely on to pamper us (like with pizzas delivered to our door) for a laugh. The story wasn’t sensationalized for absolutely no reason – it was sensationalized because it’s something we SHOULD talk about.

    Stories are unavoidable – you’ve written one yourself. Anything that happens on a college campus is part of our community, and people should write about it and talk about it. The goings-on of this campus are just as important for us to talk about as geopolitical events. There’s nothing inherently unimportant about them at all.

  • Annoyed

    This is stupid as hell and extremely pointless.

  • Mike Honcho

    Was this a satirical article?

    Seriously though, this has to be a joke.

  • Jay Gorlenzo

    Your “friend” stole a motor vehicle and then punched a guy in the groin. Don’t you think that’s pretty serious?