It’s all Greek to me

Rachel Fleming ensconces herself in the nebulous world of the American Greek system


Before I spent 10 weeks living in a small liberal arts school in Northern Illinois, everything I knew about collegiate Greek letter organisations had been learned from Legally Blonde. The possibility of meeting people who belonged to fraternities and sororities didn’t even cross my mind when I signed up to live in student dorms for the summer So, somewhat unsurprisingly, when the first person I befriended at a party referred to the other girls in the room as her ‘sisters’, I almost laughed in her face. Similarly, when the boy who lived down the hall from me explained that he followed a code of honour, justice and courage, in accordance with the values of his fraternity, I thought he sounded like a pretentious twat. Throughout my first few weeks in America, I struggled to take Greek system and and its sons and daughters seriously, assuming that there wasn’t much more to them than secret handshakes and depraved ‘keggers’.

Greek letter organisations have a long history in America, with the first one founded in 1776. Students had a burning need to express and debate opinions that were frowned upon by college administration and many believed that the existing faculty-regulated literary societies had failed to provide topical debate. Though this was the Greek system’s purpose at the outset, the function of these organisations changed as the needs of the student population did, and now the focus of each society varies. Some are heavily philanthropic, others focus on creating potential business networks, and some are closer to the original literary societies from which they were founded, holding regular debates.

The most important function, however, seems to be a social one, with the majority of students that I spoke to admitting that they joined Greek organisations primarily to make friends. One individual I spoke to explained that by joining a sorority enabled her to branch out socially. “I played soccer in high school,” she explained. “So most of my friends were into sport. When I joined my sorority, I met so many different types of people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Some of those girls have become my closest friends, even though the only thing we originally had in common was that we both belonged to the same sorority.”

Although there were three fraternities and five sororities in the college in which I lived, none of them provided housing for their members, as some of the chapters in larger schools do. It has a significant effect, as another sorority sister explained when recounting the differences between her and her brother’s Greek system experience. “The atmosphere between the Greek societies was very different [in his school], because they provided housing for their members, so if you weren’t involved in one, you were kind of excluded from everything that went on in the houses,” she said. “Here, the organisations don’t have houses so even though people join Greek societies to make friends, they socialise outside of them too. It’s a lot harder to do that when you’re living with the members of your society. I suppose it makes for a closer group but I would think that it definitely prevents you from making friends in other places.”

The activities of Greek organisations also varies hugely from college to college with some focused on more hedonistic and, perhaps, Bacchanalian pursuits. All Greek societies are founded on values such as “Honour” and “Courage”, but for your typical American student, upholding these traditions can seem somewhat less important than the possibility of procuring alcohol. While this attitude is understandable, given that under-21s are barred from most nightlife, it does undermine the validity of Greek organisations as a whole, rendering the whole thing extremely hypocritical. This is especially true given the elitist nature of these societies. In the case of the more philanthropic or intellectual organisations, it’s slightly easier to understand why committees would prefer to limit membership to those who have demonstrated their willingness to dedicate time and effort to a cause, but when a charter’s focus seems to be reenacting Animal House, what are the values that determine admission? Chugging ability? With the increasing prevelance of hazing rituals within Greek organisations, initiation rites and tests are often more dangerous and degrading than this.

This is the point where the social element of Greek organisations stops becoming harmless fun and begins to create an exclusionist climate based off dubious values. It can be argued that all Greek organisations are elitist, due to the selective nature of their membership, but a group of people selected for their willingness to raise money for charity are far less likely to inspire severe FOMO in non-members than one which has been selected based off how fun they are to drink with. It’s no secret that in the age of information overshare, in which every night out is documented with excessively long Snapchat stories and Instagrammed cocktails, being “up for the craic” is one of the most valuable traits a college student can have. Gaining admission into an organisation which selects only the most ‘fun’ students as its members must feel like a badge of honour- equally, getting rejected must be a hard blow to take. The value attached to extroverted traits by both members and non-members thus increases and grants a large degree of power to those in the society. A closely knit group of extroverted students could very quickly become an intimidating force on campus and create a negative and hostile environment which impinges on everyone’s enjoyment of student life.

It’s easy to see why a student arriving at college would chose to get involved in Greek life; I now understand its appeal. A society which centres on having fun and creating friendships while upholding virtuous ideals seems like a great way to integrate into college life. However, the question of whether these selective systems are solely positive still hangs in the air, with the possibility that these are creating intimidatingly powerful group of elites making it a much more complex question.

Illustration: John Tierney