There isn’t really such a thing as “Ivy League culture,” but there are a few mannerisms that many students at Ivy League colleges do share. Most of them (that I can think of) have to do with how these kids admit and talk about their class or privilege to other people.
For example, students at Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth will sometimes refuse to actually state that they went to those schools. When asked where they went to college, they’ll say the name of the state or town instead. Harvard students will say “Oh, in Boston,” or “in Cambridge.” Yale students say “New Haven” or “Connecticut.” Dartmouth students usually only way, “Oh, uh, in New Hampshire.” They rarely say “Hanover, New Hampshire,” because nobody knows that Hanover exists.
When I was at Dartmouth, I said “New Hampshire” a lot. (I still do, sometimes.) When you tell someone you went to an Ivy League school, weird shit can happen. It can make them behave differently and can make you feel like an asshole for admitting it, even if the other person brought it up. It can make people treat you like an outsider or a jerk even if you haven’t done any of your classic jerk things yet. In my case, I mostly used “New Hampshire” because I didn’t want to intimidate people or make them think I was waving my privilege in their faces.
But I’ve wondered for a while if it’s really just embarrassment or humility that drives most people to use these code words. It’s not really humility when a Harvard student gets specific enough to say “Cambridge,” or when a Yale student says “New Haven.” If you are familiar with either of those schools, you’ll know that there aren’t really many other schools in Cambridge or New Haven to get them confused with. No, when someone gets specific enough to say “Cambridge” or “New Haven” (or if a Dartmouth student gets the incredibly dumb urge to say “Hanover”, as I’ve seen happen a few times, in trainwreck-style slow motion), those people are probably going out of their way to wave their privilege in your face. They’re basically initiating a secret handshake with you. The way you respond to “Cambridge” or “New Haven” reveals an enormous amount about you and your background, and gives the speaker a lot of clues about how to behave toward you in the coming conversation.
- If you respond quickly and levelly or approvingly with the phrase, “Oh, Yale/Harvard?”, then the speaker knows that you are part of their millieu: regardless of whether or not you went to Yale/Harvard yourself, you are signalling that you “know about” east coast private schools, that you are comfortable talking about those places and comfortable working with the people who went there, and that you probably respect the fact that they went there. You’re probably upper middle or upper class (or grew up in one of those classes). The speaker now knows that they can talk about upper middle or upper class things with you. People from privileged places are frequently worried about letting their privilege show; if you know that “Cambridge” is a code word for “Harvard,” and if the way you say it shows that you’re also “part of that world,’ then the speaker knows they can let their privilege all hang out, so to speak.
- If you make a face, look panicked or nervous, or say “Wait, Harvard?!” or “You mean Yale?!?”, then the speaker knows that you’re aware of the world of east coast academic privilege, but it makes you anxious, and that you don’t feel like you’re “part of it.” Now they know to either a) say something self-deprecating, and try to make you feel like they’re on your “level,” or b) lord it over you somehow.
- If you have no idea what they’re talking about, and respond something like “Wait, where?” or just cross your eyes and look confused, now the person knows that you are from a class or geographic background that has afforded you zero familiarity with the world of east coast privilege. Anyone from a poor midwesterner to a Stanford or Berkeley undergrad to a wealthy Texan businessperson could give this kind of response. The speaker now knows that you and they are from very different backgrounds; they’ll have to rely on other clues you give to figure out more about you.
- If you laugh broadly and bring up the fact that your football team beat theirs back in ’05, or whatever, then you’re giving off the strongest clue response of all: you’re saying, “HA HA, GOOD FELLOW, I’M AN IVY LEAGUE STUDENT TOO!” At this point, you and the speaker should clap each other on the backs and talk about Dartmouth beer pong, or various libraries at Yale, or how much Brown sucks, or something like that. Break out the monocles; it’s party time, or something.
Basically, the more specificity in the question-dodge, the more the speaker is trying to figure out about you– and, let’s be honest, the more likely it is they’re actually some kind of asshole.
If someone says “Massachusetts” or “Connecticut,” though, you can be sure that they’re merely trying to avoid giving an answer. There are too many schools in those states, both public and private, for either of them to really give much away. There are so many tiny, tiny schools in those states that it’s not unreasonable for someone to avoid giving their college’s name just so they could avoid the long “Which one is that?” talk.
This leads me broadly back to Dartmouth, and to people (like me) who often choose to say “New Hampshire” instead. The dumb thing about New Hampshire is that compared to Connecticut or Massachusetts, there are basically only a handful of colleges there, and very few of them are widely known– if you’re saying “New Hampshire,” the people you’re talking to are going to be sifting through that short list in their heads, and there’s a good chance that they’re going to narrow it down to basically just Keene State, UNH, and Dartmouth. There’s no reason for anyone who went to UNH or Keene State to be anything other than open about their attendance there, so in the end, those of us who say “New Hampshire” are probably just as inefficient at hiding our school as the people who say “Cambridge” and “New Haven.”
I deal with it by telling myself: “Well, at least you didn’t say Hanover, you asshole.”