college friends

Redefining Friendships in Fraternity and Sorority

by Erin Chatten

If you were to know one important thing about me, it’s that I tend to ask A LOT of questions. I’m an inquisitive and curious human, and the last name of Chatten certainly doesn’t hurt my reputation. Every time I’m around my sorority sisters or on a campus working with fraternity/sorority members or the professional staff, I ask what seems like 10 million questions. Recently, that question has been “What is One Thing You Wish Fraternity/Sorority Would Have Told You Before You Joined?” I expected to get the typical responses of cost and time commitment, but this wasn’t the case. The overwhelming response I get instead is along the lines of…

“I wish someone would have told me how hard making friends was going to be.” 

This blows my mind. Here we are, SOCIAL ORGANIZATIONS, and our members struggle to find friends? The more I reflect on this, and the more I dive into question mode to learn why, I can’t help but think that fraternities and sororities have failed to define and create an expectation on what friendship REALLY looks like on the inside of our organizations.

Think about it. We preach brotherhood and sisterhood, which implies a family-like connection with others. We show photos of us laughing and being best friends with each other on our social media and during recruitment. We share stories about the fun things we do as an organization. What we don’t do is set the expectation that this close family-like connection does not come automatically with a bid. Actually, most individuals I talk to shared that it takes anywhere from a semester to a full year to find the people in their organization that feel like family. That connection is there waiting for us, but it takes time to find and build.

I remember being a new member, having just received my bid, and showing up to sorority events or chapter meetings feeling like a fish out of water. It seemed like everyone had a place to belong and that everyone had those best friends. I found myself floating around in social groups, having surface level connections but never finding anyone I felt comfortable getting deeper with. I met sorority sisters who were nice, but had different majors or interests. I met sisters who I honestly couldn’t stand being around. I didn’t dislike any of them, they just weren’t MY people. I had resilience and kept trying, and boy was I lucky to find some sisters that are still a part of my life today. I found a few of them after a semester, but some of my strongest relationships took a few years both in and out of the sorority to fully develop.

Most of your members will not have the resiliency to keep trying to find their people. They will feel left out. Feel like they are excluded from cliques. They will feel like they don’t belong. They will feel like it is their fault or that there is something wrong with them. It’s our job in recruitment and in their new member period to redefine what friendship in a fraternity or sorority will actually be like. Here is what you can do to help redefine what it looks like:

Be Honest- The first (and maybe most obvious) thing you can do is simply be honest with your new members and potential members. In recruitment, don’t feed them lies about finding 100+ new BFF’s the instant they join. We know this is what they want to hear, but this is not reality and they will feel lied to once they join. Explain what to expect, tell them how long it took you to find your people, tell them HOW you found your people. Tell them about the difference between friend groups and cliques. Most likely they aren’t being purposefully excluded, it’s just hard not to have friend groups in an organization with 100 or more people. Tell them that they don’t have to love every individual, they just need to respect them and treat them as an equal.

Be a Connector- Spotting that fish out of water is not hard. Look for the people sitting alone, not engaging in conversation, or who stop showing up altogether. You don’t need to become their best friend, but what you can do for them is to get to know them and start introducing them to other members who you think they may get along with. This is especially what can be done if you are a big or mentor to a new member. Just because you have this title and connection to them does not mean you are forced to create the family-like connection. Your role is to help them find their people and find where they feel most comfortable.

Be Real- Don’t be a “Me Too-er”. The worst thing you can do is fake connection and friendship by feigning interest in the same thing as another individual. If they are talking to you about Harry Potter and that’s not your jam, don’t pretend you like it too. Be real, say that you never got into it, and let them teach you something about their passions or interests. Nobody said you had to like the same exact things to build connection, but you do need to be authentic.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “man- I still haven’t found my people yet”, know that it is okay and totally normal. It takes time. Don’t give up. Your people are out there. Take this opportunity to be real and honest as an individual and ask for help, ask someone to be a connector. Your organization and its members are designed to support you, sometimes they just need a little push or reminder that you are having a hard time.

Strong friendships take time to build. Telling our new and potential members anything else is lying to their face. That’s not the way we retain members and not the way we build trust. I challenge you before you recruit this year to have some real, honest conversations with your chapter about how to have these conversations and set expectations before you recruit your next group of brothers and sisters.