The independent news organization of Duke University

My probation list

I often tell my friends—half in jest, half in earnest—that I put everyone on probation. The idea of creating a probation list only occurred to me shortly after college began, but some nebulous semblance of it probably already existed in my mind long before that, manifesting in my chronic distrust of others’ intentions and extreme selectivity in friendship choices. The intense socialization of college simply sent this tendency into overdrive.

Hailing from a culture where people are relatively reserved, I was pleasantly surprised to receive “hello”s, “how are you”s and generous compliments from complete strangers when I first arrived in Durham. Initially, the unexpected friendliness left me fumbling for a response. But I soon learned to reciprocate, and it was not long before the Southern hospitality started rubbing off on me. Despite my introverted inclinations, I mustered the courage to initiate dialogue and make new friends in every possible setting—on social media, in the common room, in class, on the C1 or while in line for food. 

But sustaining a friendship requires more than just brief exchanges during chance encounters. Even though everyone lives in such close proximity to each other, there are friends whom I will almost never run into coincidentally because of our utterly incongruent schedules. More than that, when someone makes a conscious effort to meet up with me, it is a sign that they are invested in developing our friendship. It is reassuring to know that I am worth the time and energy they could have been spending on problem sets, clubs or with other people.

Of course, not everyone will make such an effort. Of the many acquaintanceships that I have formed, only a handful have progressed from superficial “hello”s, “how are you”s and the usual small talk about classes, clubs and majors to something more lasting, substantial and genuine. I used to believe that I had the astute judgment to gauge from the outset how a relationship was going to unfold. But I recognize now that this confidence was grossly misplaced, for humans are simply too complicated to predict. 

The infectious energy exuded by natural-born extroverts during our interactions always draws me in, only to leave me disappointed once I realize that they are social butterflies with no intention of establishing deep relationships. On the other side of the spectrum are people who appear so unenthusiastic or guarded during our first encounter that I instantaneously abandon any hope of befriending them and make a mental note to avoid future contact. But then they spring effusive, warm greetings on me during subsequent encounters and I berate myself for hastily jumping to sweeping conclusions based on a single interaction that might have just been blighted by fatigue or shyness. Even with friends whom I’ve known since the start of the semester, I sometimes cannot help but wonder if our relationships were born out of sheer convenience and worry that they will crumble in the face of changing circumstances. Some friends still surprise and confuse me from time to time, revealing new layers of their personality that make me question if I ever really knew them.

The messy realities of college friendships instigated the creation of my probation list. Everyone I know assumes a spot on the list by default, but everyone starts from a different place, depending on the impressions I formulate of them through our initial interactions. Some gain my trust quickly and glide their way up the list, only to fall from grace when they betray that trust. Others undergo trajectories that are fraught with instability because they behave in such incongruous ways in different social situations that I simply cannot figure them out. The good news is that nobody is ever banished from the list—redemption is possible, albeit difficult. Nor does anyone ever graduate from it, no matter how close they get to the top—because graduation is irrevocable, but people and relationships change all the time. 

Putting everyone, including close friends, on probation is an immensely useful way for me to identify the people who—in the words of Marie Kondo—spark joy in my life. It forces me to develop a clear idea of what I value in my relationships and enforce those standards fairly across all my social interactions, so I don’t give my friends free passes just because they have earned their places in my inner circle. It reminds me to reserve the deeply personal details of my life for the people who actually care enough to appreciate them—especially during late-night conversations that have a dangerous way of making you more willing to bare your soul, even to people you hardly know.

Putting people on probation also diversifies my social circle by giving rise to some of my least expected but most cherished friendships. It tempers my tendency to write people off completely after a single unpleasant interaction, creating opportunities for me to form friendships with people whom I would not usually associate with. Those for whom provocation is a way of life typically fall under this category. Their contentious views and unapologetically plain-spoken demeanor simply do not lend well to light-hearted dialogue during first encounters. Every conversation with them has the potential to escalate into an effusive exchange or a heated argument, but their bristling personalities grow on me over time. The constant push and pull spices up our relationship and teaches me to feel more comfortable with tension and conflict. 

As much as all of this makes me sound like a deranged and overly analytical psychopath, I promise that there is some method in my madness. My probation list isn’t a brutal friendship ranking system. Nor is it ever cast in stone. It is a safe space where my friendships exist in a state of constant flux, a Goldilocks zone where people can come close but not too close for comfort, a healthy buffer that preserves my sanity in the crucible of college socialization.

Valerie Tan is a Pratt first-year. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.


Share and discuss “My probation list” on social media.