An evaluation of what topics girls frown upon in conversation and why
Most Upper School girls have probably regretted saying something to their peers at one point or another. While a touchy subject may crop up here and there in conversation, for the most part, students know what to discuss and what to avoid.
The most controversial subjects, which range from politics and religion to tutoring and college visits, fall into the latter category, and as a whole, students rarely hear them mentioned at the lunch table.
Considered part of the rulebook on high school social conduct, these taboos are enforced by the often careful conversations that take place in the hallways, advisory and the lunchroom. In these types of social situations, students generally avoid certain topics either to protect friendships, avert awkward confrontation or preserve a positive reputation.
“In some ways, maybe the whole reason why we don’t talk about these things is that women are very into protecting relationships,” Upper School Counselor Dr. Margaret Morse said.
Most girls do not want to offend others and risk staining a relationship. Avoiding the conversation in the first place is key when trying to stay inoffensive.
“It’s easier to have conversations with people who share your views,” junior Kendall Ernst said. “Take advisory, for example. Mine is a very random group of people who do not necessarily share the same views. We get along, but the reason we do is because we don’t delve into it.”
But for others, the main reason for keeping these taboos in place is not about avoiding awkward situations, but rather averting judgment.
“I feel like confrontation is more temporary whereas judgment can last a long
time,” junior Grace said.
Whatever the reason, strict taboos exist to add structure and guidelines to conversations to facilitate a harmless interaction between peers. This is especially important in places outside of the classroom.
“In a classroom, you can do it in a constructive, thoughtful way. I don’t think the way you guys talk in the hallways is the way you guys discuss it in the classroom,” Morse said.
Students agree with that.
“I think in the hallway, we are a lot more blunt about things whereas in the classroom we are trying to make it sound intelligent,” senior Linda said. “I think we get more honest answers in the hallway whereas in the classroom we get something more structured.”
Without a teacher or advisor as a moderator, it could be easy to assume that all bets are off. But with the taboos put into place, girls attempt to moderate some conversations themselves. With a teacher in the room, however, most agree that discussion is taken with heed.
Junior Katya said that after switching to two new, more hands-on advisors this year, her advisory’s conversations have “definitely changed” with adults present. But even in an advisory without an adult present, chatter can be limited.
Often, as Kendall said, advisories are composed of many different people from different backgrounds, experiences and friend groups.
“Some comments are just bound to offend someone,” said junior Katie. “You do just avoid them a little bit more because we have so much diversity,” she said.
However, sitting in the hallways and lunchroom, instead of advisory, is different. And groups become less diversified; usually, close friends sit with close friends and certain taboos disappear.
“They know where you’re coming from and more about your personality,” Katie said. In her opinion, the talk will change and, of course, become much less restricted.
But will this careful treading in conversation and social situations stay important to girls throughout their lives? Some believe so.
“In general…there’s always that need to be accepted, and I don’t think it really changes as we get older,” junior Anna said.
And because the rules don’t change, the effects also stay the same. Morse argues that keeping some aspects a secret can be damaging.
“It’s often about hiding our true self.” Morse said, “Your outward presentation is not consistent with who you really are, and that can be confusing… What are we missing out by not engaging in these conversations?
Hockaday has always addressed “fat talk” and other self-deprecating conversational behavior as detrimental ways to converse, but often, the opposite can be negative as well. Trying to build yourself up instead of resorting to self-deprecation has now become a conversational taboo. Positive self-image presented in social situations is often misconstrued as overconfidence.
“I think there are maybe a couple reasons why that is,” Morse said. “Girls don’t want to look conceited.”
Freshman Ellie said that a girl who may speak out too openly about her confidence could be taken as “compliment-seeking,” even if her behavior is not intentional. Sometimes that desire for assurance from peers is second-nature to women.
“Girls want to get compliments. It’s like boost. You pull yourself down, so that someone will bring you back up,” Katie said.
This talk has become “so normalized,” according to Morse, that it’s now socially acceptable to do so. And this normalization of negative talk can be attributed to the influence of media and culture.
“Part of it is cultural in the sense that every sitcom that we have on television has self-deprecating humor. It’s always about putting the other person down,” said Rebekah Calhoun, Director of Health Curriculum. “Culturally, we’re just acclimatized to it and it’s become normative behavior.”
Unlike other taboos in Upper School, positive self-image, for many, boils down to girls versus boys. They suggest that maybe it’s just women who act this way.
“Men love to talk about how great they collectively are,” Grace said.
For some, the stigma against positive self-image has to be about women having more insecurity or being more comfortable in a secondary position. Simply put, girls naturally yearn for recognition.
“I think boys try to show off what they have while girls want someone to compliment them first. They want to be recognized,” Anna said.
And if a girl doesn’t drag herself down with her peers, Morse argues it may suggest a “feminist, aggressive” aspect to her personality that can be a turnoff for many people. Others may mistake her lack of participation in the self-deprecation as a sign that she doesn’t want to take part in the “bonding.”
That sort of negative and very public self-disparaging has now become so normal in social situations that the opposite (being outwardly confident) has become a taboo. As Calhoun said, “we are much more likely to be critical than self-promoting.”
But Morse wonders what would happen if this changed.
“I think there are some benefits to people going around saying ‘I think I look good’. Why couldn’t that be a good thing? What would happen if our community started to embrace this kind of talk?”
Religion and Politics
On the odd chance that politics and religion do pop-up in casual conversation, generally in American society, the situation can become awkward. For adults, the conversational taboo on politics and religion is what Grace and many others call “the dinner party rule.” It can be one of the most heated subjects in the real world and in the Hockaday Upper School as well.
For most girls, avoiding the subject is generally automatic because the likelihood of a conversation on politics or religion spinning out of control is very high.
“Beliefs are just so personal that you would never want to undermine them or say that yours are better, so it’s just better to discontinue the conversation,” Katie said.
“Politically, people tend to stand really strong in their political views. Because we’re at Hockaday, most people can support their views with firm beliefs,” said Linda. That’s when it gets heated.
Some students ask, why even bring it up? “When people are really extreme one way or the other, it gets awkward. You may not agree with them, and nothing you say is going to change this view. So why would [you] even approach it?” Kendall said.
The conversation may also be difficult because religion, and even politics in some cases, is based on emotion and pure personal belief, not so much on fact or tangible proof.
Both politics and religion become so complex that a position can be hard to articulate, which causes some of the frustration associated with this conversational topic.
“A lot of people can’t fully understand everything they believe, but they know that they relate,” Katie said.
And discussion becomes especially difficult when people don’t follow the rules.
“Sometimes I feel like when it is brought up, it’s almost brought up in a condescending way,” Anna said. It causes the conversation to be even more painful than it needs to be.
In terms of politics, “some people get really militant about it when they don’t really know what they’re talking about.” Kendall said, “They don’t have any support but they’re just going to slam their view into you as many times as they can,” and the militant nature only adds to the confrontational atmosphere of this discussion.
College Visits and
This taboo on college has nothing to do with which colleges a student is applying to. That one is obvious. For the most part, high school girls don’t share that information with others. However, this specific taboo is much less overt; it focuses on the little things, the details that may indicate a student’s aptitude or where they are leaning without explicitly being said.
Just as with the other taboos, some use this conversational rule because of their general distrust of people being able to talk about it inoffensively. Often, many just don’t believe it can be done.
“I think where the college conversation can get sticky is where people are saying their back-up school when that might another person’s reach school. That’s where it can be disrespectful,” Morse said. “I think that as a result, people just don’t want to talk about it at all. They may not be confident that people can be respectful about it.”
Everything about the process is personal. Even if it doesn’t involve an application, the visits, information sessions and talks with representatives are still important aspects of applying to college.
“I think that applying to college is the most private thing you can do; it’s your grades, what you’ve done. It’s everything about you,” Katie said.
However, when people begin to over-analyze, even the smallest of choices, such as deciding whether or not to attend a college fair or a session with a representative, can be just secretive as the big decisions. In an atmosphere where personal success is relative to that of others, the little things become big, important things as well.
“Hockaday is such a competitive environment that people will judge you if you’re going to see one school and someone else is going to visit Harvard,” Katie said.
However, perspective on the taboo can change once a student is actually in the process of applying to college.
“Other than exactly where you’re applying early and your essay topics, we’re pretty fine with [talking about college],” Linda said. Take applications for example. “I think we are all relatively comfortable talking about apps because we’re all pretty much in the same boat.”
And luckily, some students have found a way to get around this awkward topic by “lighten[ing] the mood” as senior Emily says. Her friends even go so far as to throw grapes at each other when college talk becomes too much.
“We like to complain about it, but when the talk gets too serious, then we try and make light of it,” said senior Eliza.
Though some are able to laugh it off in a healthy way, most still see secrecy in the college process as a real problem.
Morse believes that “in an ideal world, you wish people could be happy for each other.” And if discussion could continue in that highly constructive way, “maybe these wouldn’t be taboo subjects.”
Standardized Test Prep and Tutoring
Count the number of times tutoring is discussed at the lunch table, and the number should be less than a few. Unlike the other three taboos, discussion on tutoring not only is avoided, but also carries a stigma.
“At least in our grade, we tend to not talk about tutoring a lot. We are competitive…and we don’t try to tell each other what we’re doing outside of school, but I know that people do tutor a lot in certain subjects,” Linda said. In her opinion, people don’t admit to tutoring in front of others because it can “hurt their pride” even if they are a hard-working student that really benefits from it.
But most believe it shouldn’t be this way. “I don’t think people think they’re stupid because they’re getting a private tutor. Some of the smartest people get tutors,” junior Emily said.
However, the way students perceive tutoring does depend on whether the extra attention concerns an academic subject or standardized test preparation.
“When you’re in a class, there are other people that are also getting help, so you think you’re not the only one that needs it,” Katie said. “But when you have a private tutor, you think ‘am I the only one that needs this?’ because you don’t see other people getting it.”
With group classes, the secrecy as well as the attitude towards tutoring differs.
“When you have a private tutor, no one else has to know,” Katie added, further expressing that many do not openly discuss the subject.
Morse explains why this is so. Regardless of whether help is warranted or not, a student’s performance in a class is altered. At the end of the day, it is a less accurate representation of a student’s capability, even though the aid can be necessary and highly beneficial often to very hardworking students.
“It’s almost like you’re cushioning the norm. Everyone thinks you should be up here, but you’re actually receiving help to be up there,” Morse said, regarding individual subject tutoring.
And admitting to receiving outside help could mean admitting to needing the help in the first place.
“In the Hockaday environment…no one ever wants to feel like they’re less than anyone else. You always want to feel like you’re on top of it,” Katie said.
Morse relates tutoring to the connection between all of the taboos: “hiding our true selves.”
“[A student] might not think she is good enough as is and may find it shameful that she needs tutoring.” Morse said, “She’s saving face.”