Ever since I first watched Seinfeld foursome go round for round, I have seen everyday humor as the singular most important catalyst to friendship. Indoctrinated in this philosophy, I found witty banter to be invaluable throughout my friend-making career. I relish in the verbal ping-pong between two people, the tension that develops in the midst of the trenches, and the confidence that ensues when you realize you’ve one up-ed your opponent. From my days on the monkey bars to study breaks in Core, wit has been my primary social skill.
The cliché, yet usually true, answer to “what matters most to you a friend” is “a sense of humor.” So naturally, I exploited this fact to its bitter end. As a middle schooler, I practiced quick thinking around my classmates, and found that being funny was an easy way to make friends. As I grew older, I used my wit to distract boys from my pimples and somewhat jelly-belly shaped midsection. Maybe, just maybe, I could be clever enough to make them see past the Butterfinger stuck in my braces. My wit became my armor against petty adolescent insecurities, and it became my primary currency for friendship. Just like those twisted characters of Seinfeld.
But when I came to college, I noticed something was awry with my formula. Without the assurance of bumping into the same people every day, I never got past the acquaintance stage with most, and as a result, became merely a clever afterthought. When I did happen to enter the realm of serious conversations with someone, I choked. I had nothing substantive, deep or even mildly informative to say. Everyone else appeared to be treading along a rather steadfast path—engineer, lawyer, journalist—and underneath my Spinal Tap references, I had no idea what I really wanted out of my life. So, whenever someone attempted to discover the facts and figures of Hayley Altabef, I simply deflected all serious queries with another self-deprecating line, entirely unsure what those answers would actually be. And because of my total lack of self-awareness, I found that most of my friendships stagnated on a surface of superficial inside jokes, sharing nothing on which to base a true bond.
I had totally missed the mark. Instead of leaning about people, their interests, and their quirks, I had settled for a series of incongruous stop and chats, in which personalities were exchanged merely on the side of quips. My only way to relate to people caused them to see me as little more than an encyclopedia of sexual innuendo and Superbad references. While I had always conceived of wit as an indication of intelligence and depth, I quickly discovered that, in excess, it placed me on the shallow, one-dimensional side of life. Wit certainly displayed my mental muscles and bluntly presented what I was thinking, but it continually failed to explain why. This fickle “why” bit plagued me throughout freshman year, and dug friendships built upon fact, not philosophy. I had no idea how my mind really worked, and beyond dissecting others’ humor, was oblivious as to their thought processes as well.
Now, as a sophomore, I’ve made a conscious decision to leave behind most of the acquaintances that once filled my walks to and from Tech. This year, I’ve decided to embody the cliché college experience and find myself alongside others who are trying to do the same. I’ve laid most of my witticisms to rest, and have replaced them with authentic conversations that steer clear of a mutual distain for middle parts or whole-wheat pasta.
Without the gloss of rehearsed comebacks and standby routines, I’ve found my friendships at Northwestern have grown into something much bigger than a handful of wry observations. They push me to find something beyond the everyday Seinfeld banter that so often veils intimacy. It’s a whole new kind of anticipation, walking the tightrope of true friendship instead of lobbing tired lines back and forth. My old pretense of humor was exhausting for all the wrong reasons; while sharing myself with others is perhaps equally taxing, at least I come away with something slightly more probing than another scene of Jerry and George discussing the relative merits of ventriloquism or ankle socks.
It was, after all, a show about nothing. I just wish I had realized that before I embodied its facetious, pessimistic spirit for the past 10 years of my life.