Until recently, I was of the naïve belief that no Harvard graduates actually responded to inquiries about their alma mater with “I went to college in Boston,” nor Yalies with “New Haven,” Princetonians with “New Jersey,” or Stanford alumni with “the Bay area.” I assumed this conversational maneuver was such an embarrassing cliché that it had become obsolete, the province of fictional characters who were either historical (like The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, who informs readers, “I graduated from New Haven in 1915”) or cartooonish (like 30 Rock’s Toofer, who bellows, “I went to college in Boston. Well, not in Boston, but nearby. No, not Tufts”).*
Then I solicited the opinions of my Slate colleagues, many of whom have degrees from universities that rank highly on U.S. News and World Report’s annual list. I discovered that many of them had personally heard this wink of a noncommittal response, and, more alarmingly, some of them had uttered some version of it themselves. (“I'm not proud of it, but I have once or twice said Connecticut instead of Yale,” admitted one Eli.)
Having thus learned that this is still a thing, I must, at this moment when many undergraduates are headed home for the summer, urge all Yale, Princeton, and Harvard students and alumni—and anyone else tempted to use a geographical euphemism to describe their august alma mater—to please stop doing this. Cease and desist. Cut it out. I’m sure you are a kind and smart person, but this verbal habit makes you look like a patronizing, self-serious jerk.
Sure, there are times when you’re telling a story about your college years and your undergraduate city of residence comes up organically. E.g., “I went to college in Boston, which is why I’m a Red Sox fan.” This is fine—you certainly don’t need to be telling people about the fancy, famous school you attended when it’s not relevant to what you’re talking about. But there is never any reason to answer the direct question “Where did you go to college?” with an evasive half-truth.
Elite alumni’s main justification for this habit is that some people act weird and make uncomfortable or hostile comments when they learn you went to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Indeed, Harvardians frequently refer to telling people you went to Harvard as “dropping the H-bomb,” which is perhaps the most cringeworthily hyperbolic expression in the English language. The unwieldy conversational power of the H-bomb is a recurring topic of analysis in the Harvard Crimson. See, for instance, this 2002 piece by MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon with the excellent subtitle “Does it help or hinder the mack?” (The gender politics of the H-bomb are complicated.) Princetonians, similarly, talk about the “P-bomb,” a term that implies that the two syllables in “Princeton” can derail small talk and obliterate nascent social connections in one fell swoop.
Certainly, some small number of people—insecure people who perhaps have not yet learned that Ivy League schools confer degrees on plenty of idiots every year—may react inelegantly upon hearing that you went to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. But it is not your job to anticipate and preemptively manage another person’s emotional response to your biography. If you tell people you went to Harvard and they respond by freaking out, that reflects poorly on them.
If, on the other hand, you refuse to tell someone you went to Harvard, that reflects poorly on you—it implies that, on some level, you buy into the overblown mythos of Harvard and the presumption of Ivy League superiority. To fear the effects of the word “Harvard” is to take Harvard way too seriously. Once you understand that Harvard is just a college, and that getting into Harvard probably had more to do with your socioeconomic background and the luck of the draw than with your merits vis-à-vis people who didn’t get into (or, more likely, just didn’t apply to) Harvard, the cagey “college in Boston” response starts to sound very, very silly.
Or look at it this way: Saying you “went to college in Boston” or “went to college in New Haven” functions as an elitist dog whistle. There are people who pick up on the hint, people who, like you perhaps, spend a lot of time around snotty people who went to prestigious schools. But if your interlocutor understands the dog whistle, he will probably be offended that you have judged him incapable of gracefully handling the news about where you went to school. And if your interlocutor doesn’t understand the dog whistle, he will simply wonder why you are being so evasive and weird—and then, if he does eventually find out you went to Yale, he will be offended that you have judged him incapable of gracefully handling that fact. Either way, you’ll look like a shmuck.
*Correction, May 30, 2014: This post originally misspelled the last name of the Great Gatsby character Nick Carraway.
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