Here at Stanford, you switch directions every 10 weeks and leave one set of people for another just as you are transitioning from acquaintances to real friends. You are a tiny blip among 7,000 fast-moving, overscheduled lives.
Friends flow in and out of my day-to-day life in a continuous and unpredictable stream. One leaves for Germany, another has a light quarter, and the inevitable scattering that the summer brings hangs over all of my relationships like a time bomb. Despite my efforts to keep everyone in one place at one time, we shoot off at a million different angles and have to be content with the lucky intersections. This flux is crazy-making, lonely and exciting. It feels poetically appropriate that at a time when I change vastly from day to day, my relationships should be ambiguous and unpredictable as well.
Which brings me to the point of this column. When students complain about the dating climate at Stanford, would they really want to change it? Or is there something in the uncertainty and spontaneity of a loosely defined hook-up culture that not only fits the flux of our age group but also has us all addicted? I used to think people didn’t say what they meant in relationships because they were trying to be mysterious and play games. Now I’m beginning to think that people don’t say what they mean because they enjoy the ambiguity of a relationship that is somewhere between friends and significant others. Many people don’t know what they mean because it changes so drastically from one day to the next, and saying nothing might even be a respectful gesture.
Both of these possibilities are very different from playing games. Playing games implies some knowledge of the game, some strategy and premeditation. Enjoying ambiguity and not knowing what you mean to say are products of a more innocent cluelessness that comes from the flux of being in college. Playing games implies that there is a game to be played, something I don’t totally buy. The excitement of the chase is real, but I don’t think the chase is as close to the heart of our addiction as is the promise that stems from unpredictability, a promise of never getting bored and feeding an insatiable appetite for novelty.
The words themselves are laughably ambiguous: “exclusive,” “hooking up,” even “dating.” (Are we talking about committed and monogamous or going on dates with many different people at once?) The vocabulary is lacking because our intentions are that unclear. The malleable terms are more true to the real story; they match nicely the changing nature of college life.
I think we could all learn to say what we mean a little more eloquently to give each other clarity when clarity is in order. We could all work toward a more explicit vocabulary. But in the midst of a wildly changing time in your life, learning where ambiguity is appropriate in relationships can save you some sanity. It can feel like the floor is shifting under your feet when you don’t know who you will be tomorrow. (Will you still be a Zen Buddhist? Will the people you love be 3,000 miles away? Will you still love Norah Jones?)
When you try to force too much clarity onto your murky 20s, that shifting floor beneath you can feel like quicksand clutching at your legs and getting you stuck. When you relax into the uncertainty a little bit, it can feel more like one of those moving walkways at an airport, taking you toward something hazy and unknown, but moving you forward nonetheless.
One thing’s not ambiguous: Renee would love to hear your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.