Picture this: You step onto the Comm. Ave bus at Conte Forum—head down, hood up (it’s blustery outside, ok?), avoiding eye contact with any and all passengers so you don’t have to say you BC Looked Away. You blindly swing into a seat; peek left: all clear. Peek right: DAMMIT it’s the girl who sits next to the girl you sit next to in your History core. Now you have to say something. “Remind me, what’s your major again? Oh yeah Applied Psych and Human Development, great stuff.”
You don’t know a thing about Applied Psych and Human Development and can’t even begin to wrap your head around what it’s doing in the Lynch School. Wait, that’s pretty good. “How is Applied Psych and Learning Growth related to the other Lynch majors? Seems random.”
Now Emily will spend the next five minutes explaining the ins and outs of how Applied Psych and Blah Blah is related to education, buying you plenty of time to zone out, nodding sporadically and staring at her blurry, uncomfortably close face. The sad thing is, Emily’s actually really cool. She’s the MVP of her intramural volleyball team, Notorious D.I.G., she speaks fluent German, and she spent the summer travelling and farming in Italy. All things you’ll never know. But, hey, you came out of this with the real inside scoop on Applied Psych and—I’m not going to say it again.
The point is, asking people their majors is a valuable detail about them, but I would argue it’s far from the most important, the most interesting, or the most germane to a conversation that doesn’t put both parties to sleep. It’s the tranquilizer dart of conversation topics.
If you’re already nervous sweating about the idea of having to come up with a topically relevant question on the spot for every person you talk to, please don’t. A generic question is a hugely helpful way of getting a conversation off the ground. But instead of asking something that implies disinterest, experiment with a question that gives the other person the opportunity to express something authentic about themselves, not just the course load they share with hundreds of students.
What do you love to do?
I’m an International Studies major, and I enjoy my classes. But if you asked me what I love to do, I’d say I love playing tennis. I’m not exceptionally good, don’t play on a team, and I’m definitely not majoring in tennis. But I could talk to anyone and everyone about Roger Federer and the U.S. Open and the snarky man who restrung my racket over the summer. If you wanted, I might even invite you to hit the tennis ball with me sometime.
If you’re trying to keep someone at arm’s length or reduce them to 40 credit hours, then sure, the major question is tried and true. But if you want to remember them, learn something that interests you, and find a commonality with substance, ask someone what they love to do.
A Finance major and aspiring investment banker and a Political Science major apparently have little in common. The chasm widens if that Poli Sci major is an avid Bernie Sanders fan. Still, I doubt that the Finance major would attest that she loves stocks and bonds more than watching Mad Men, and I’m guessing Bernie Jr. would give up the anti-capitalist crusade for an hour to watch a rerun.
But beyond its divisive implications for campus culture, most profoundly “the major question” primes us to be socioeconomic status probers well past graduation. In Britain, France, and much of Western Europe, many people perceive of the question, “What do you do for work?” as one of status, not harmless curiosity. Really, what you mean to ask is, “How much money do you make? Can I afford to go out to drinks with you?” Hypersensitivity to career questions in Europe may be the residue of a history of aristocracy and the frenzied fight to tear it down, but it’s still worthy of consideration.
When we ask someone what he or she does for a living, in part it’s because we want to know what their day looks like or what they’re skilled in. But reflexively, before consciously steering our minds elsewhere, dollars signs swim though our heads.
On a college campus, the “major question” is like a fiscal-potential pre-test: How much money will you make when you graduate? I and many other MCAS students fall into the negative pattern of prematurely bemoaning our ramen and roommates lifestyle. We turn our classmates’ lucrative future career paths into a bitter pill that we take every time we ask, “What’s your major?” CSOM students jokingly cast themselves as the money hungry sellouts, but somewhere along the way they undersell their immense level of skill.
Now more than ever we must steer away from embittering ourselves with stereotypes and instead make a conscious effort on our campus to understand each other individually, to emphasize our commonalities, and to probe about others’ passions—not just what they passionately stand against.
MCAS versus CSOM may be a far cry from Democrat versus Republican at first glance, but reducing one another primarily to groupings and labels of any kind risks quickly devolving into mutual disdain and dismissiveness. And so I challenge you, walk alongside a fellow classmate and resist the temptation to gauge the monetary worth of what’s in their head, or whether they vote blue or red. Ask them what they love—you might be surprised how much you share.