I am a passionate advocate of strategic storytelling.
If someone asks “how are you?” you probably tailor your response to the situation and the person asking. The barista does not actually want to know about your sick cat or the rude thing your neighbor said to you that you can’t get out of your head. They also probably don’t want to know how epic last night’s party was. Depending on the situation, a lie (“great, thanks” or “not too bad, you?”) will probably suffice. No one will call you on this edited response. You just lied, and for the overall comfort and benefit of everyone involved. A non-lying option is you could go with a short version of the truth: “need extra caffeine, had a rough start to the day” or a self-deprecating laugh “paying for last night’s fun.” You get to frame your answers. You read the situation and offer an interaction based on one version of the truth.
The same is true when you are asked “how’s college?” “what are you up to these days?” “do you like your classes?” “are you settling in OK?”
These are the worst questions you can possibly be asked as a college student.
The answers are just too complicated—messy beyond belief.
College is way too many things. It’s a wrong answer you gave in your statistics class and a great bit of insight offered in American literature. It’s the lectures you love on Tuesday/Thursday and the dreaded three-hour class on Wednesday afternoon that looms over the rest of your week and makes you regret the whole college process. It’s a bad grade on one quiz but great results on another. It’s the friends you’re making and the connections you’re forming and the varying sense of power and potential…and the occasional shrinking sense of loneliness. It is your entire life from what you’ve eaten for the last four months to your difficulty deciding what the end goal of these four years really is.
“How’s college?” is about the worst question you can possibly be asked.
But you control your answer. You probably can’t get away with a two-word “it’s great.” in most situations. Instead, pick a narrative to describe a bit of how college is. How about
“It’s great and I’ve met some really exceptional people and am enjoying most of my classes. Some are harder than others and I’m quite excited to be done with the stats class I had to take. But I really enjoyed literature and sociology, and connected with those professors. I’m looking into a couple of internship options and might even do some independent research. So it’s busy, but it’s going really well.”
Right there you’ve re-directed any and all questions. If you’d rather not talk about a disastrous dating experience or the first essay assigned for your philosophy class, you have effectively not brought those topics into the conversation. Instead you’ve directed attention to building your networks and your internship opportunities. You have given the other person a couple of obvious follow-up questions based on what you actually want to talk about: lit and soc, internships and research. By putting the detail of your statistics class in the middle you’ve acknowledged that not everything about college is easy, while also framing it in a positive and upbeat way.
You do not owe anyone full access to your emotions or conflicted decisions. You do not have to share your most embarrassing moments, or your biggest failures. In casual conversations with the average person who crosses your path, you should offer some true stories and a sense of your experiences. But you are the one telling the story. You decide.
Most times, most people don’t want the whole story.
When you frame your answers this way, it allows you to have the time and energy for real and full conversations with the people you rely on for advice and moral support. It means that your closest friends and confidants, and the members of your family who you lean on for advice, can hear your full set of emotions and confusions, your celebrations and fears, without the added burden and emotional drain of having shared these stories with people whose input you are not actually seeking.
This kind of strategic storytelling will get you through holiday chats with your extended family, conversations about study abroad, and generally coping with moving through complicated realities of young adult life.
Plan ahead for those situations when you’ll be walking into a series of well-meant but difficult-to-answer questions. You can probably see them coming well ahead of time. Pick your stories and frame your college narrative.
So… how’s college? What story do you tell?