Story by Timothy Hue
Why does a phantom, phantom?
What do you picture when someone asks you to imagine a USP phantom? Perhaps a solitary kid in a darkened room, a blanket pulled over their head, hunched in the small spot of light over a screen or paper notes. That would be a fair mental picture to conjure. After all, that’s exactly what this writer is like. (Sans the darkness; I like my isolation well-lit.)
But not all phantoms fit so neatly into that stereotype, if at all. Even my limited experience with others like me could tell me that much. But it is perhaps in keeping with the nature of a USP student that that knowledge was not enough; there was more to see, I knew, than the little I had laid out before me. And so, a short survey later, I found myself sitting atop a mound of data.This was, at first glance, the ‘more to see’ that I was looking for.
Except, not quite. I could tell you a lot about what the data says. But general trends and rigid answers don’t tell you anything about anyone.
I had not done justice to us, I realised. Putting the data out in the way I’d written it would have missed the point completely. Yet, pushing past thinking in the general is difficult; it’s not easy to understand the people behind a group whose primary connecting factor is their disconnection.
With that in mind, I prepared a second round of questions, this time, for some of the people who volunteered their contacts. And this time, armed with both the label and its wearers, I sought to understand the people like me.
Just a note, though, before we begin: while of course this article is true to the people in it, it’s hard to say whether it is truly representative of the phantom whole. It’s entirely possible that a lot of actual phantoms decided not to fill in this survey, or maybe weren’t even aware of its existence. As someone who would in all likelihood have fallen into that category, I will do my best to fill the potential gap; but in the end, nothing can really tell you about a group except for everyone in it. Hopefully you come away from this article not with a sense of what phantoms are, but part of what they could be.
Let’s first address the stereotype of the introverted phantom. As with many such stereotypes, there is a little bit of truth behind it. The majority of surveyees – about 90% – said that they considered themselves introverts or in between introversion and extroversion, and 80% said they considered themselves phantoms. But of course that doesn’t tell the whole story – a number of those introverts and in-betweens didn’t consider themselves phantoms while a number of extroverts did.
Before all this had begun, when I was making the survey, I found the idea baffling; I’d thought that phantoms were almost universally introverted, or at least not on the extreme right of the introverted-extroverted scale. I did not imagine we would get as many extroverted phantoms as we did. If you were an extrovert, would you not naturally seek out other people to “extrovert” with?
Shermaine, a year 4 Sociology student, was among those in the extrovert phantom category.
“I don’t think it was a choice that I made,” said Shermaine. “I think many people in USP are comfortable in their own circles and would prefer not to expand it or be in a new one. So that makes me just another acquaintance.”
She added that her time on exchange widened the rift between herself and her juniors, whose orientation she had missed. Though even then, her options might have been limited. In her own words: “There’s also this whatever junior-senior divide thing that’s going on.”
Shermaine’s experience reflects, in large part, the sentiment of many surveyees: not that they didn’t have social lives at all, but that they just weren’t close to many people in USP. Explanations like “not much close friends [sic] in USP”, “never really hung out with USP folk outside of lessons/residence”, and “lost touch with most freshmen and year 2[s]”, featured often in the survey results. Without an impetus to come to campus, is it any surprise that we count among the missing faces?
Some might call this a failure of our orientation camps and other social activities. But, naturally, people sometimes just don’t click, and when that happens, a divergence is unavoidable. As one surveyee opined, “Most people at USP aren’t on the same ‘frequency’. Most people are either too serious or their idea of fun is very childish.”
In the end, to ‘click’ with another person is just one thing. But to do so, you first need to reach someone. And to reach someone, you need to bridge the divide between you two. And that can often be tricky. Divides take many forms, whether in circles and cliques or perhaps across years.
John (not his real name), a Year 3 Chemical Engineering student, pointed out a reason why many seniors like him might phantom: “Most people in my year aren’t in RC and most of those staying in are juniors.” For the seniors staying in, a friend on campus might have to come from outside his cohort.
But without incentive, why would they leave their comfort zone? As John put it, in a practical way, “What do I get from interacting with juniors? Not more lobang or insights into a future career, probably.” If people aren’t willing to go out of their way to find friends, and no path of lesser resistance is available, phantoming may be the best way out.
Sometimes that’s okay. You’ll find many of us, myself included, who phantom by choice or nature. The survey featured many familiar quotes like “rarely participate in social activities of any kind”, “I like being off the radar”, and “love indoors, my room and my computer”. The world is no stranger to introverts.
That said, there is still a big difference between just choice and nature, and that difference is a critical one. Clara (not her real name), explained: “I’m naturally inclined to being on the shy side.” However, she added later that her phantom title functioned at least partially as “an excuse not to make the effort to step out of my comfort zone”.
It’s not easy to understand the people behind a group whose primary connecting factor is their disconnection.
Shermaine picked up on a similar idea, saying “I think most people in USP don’t like to go out of their comfort zones to know people better.” Which is a perfectly legitimate point; that’s certainly what I’m like. But, at the same time, I know that venturing out of my comfort zone would do nothing for me. I love my room and my solitude, and leaving it wouldn’t make me any happier than I am now. That’s just my nature. And I know there are many people like that.
This seemed to be a recurring sentiment for many of our interviewees. Clara said: “I’m quite content with the friends I’ve made and continue to make through day-to-day interactions.”
Mary (also not her real name), a Year 4 student, said: “I’m okay because although I don’t know super a lot of people, I’m still connected with a few key people who matter to me.”
For those of us whose nature fits the bill perfectly, phantoming is nothing to be ashamed of. Shermaine said: “No point trying to make friends if people don’t really want to.” Who she was originally addressing are those who would genuinely be happier with more friends, albeit at the risk of discomfort. Sort of like an activation energy that has to be overcome to reach a more desirable state. (At least I still remember some of my O-level Chemistry.)
So, with regard to that particular group: what can be done? It’s a bit difficult to say, in my opinion. If there’s anything that I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that everyone has different reasons for doing the same thing, and it’s not easy to target them all at the same time.
For most of our interviewees, the question comes down to socialising opportunities. “I suppose it helps to have a large diversity of events to get more different types of people to come to RC more often,” Mary suggested.
Shermaine agreed, pointing out that the ambition of the event – “even just a dinner” – didn’t matter so long as it provided the opportunity. She added: “I think people here won’t go out of their comfort zones to know others better unless they’re forced to be in the same situation as them.”
Clara cautioned against this line of thinking. “It has be something that doesn’t feel too forced or unnatural,” she said. Personally, I’m inclined to agree; I’ve never taken well to compulsory events, and I doubt many others will.
John took a more pessimistic stance. “Taking part in common activities would bring people closer, I’m sure,” said John.
He added: “But it’s just a fact of life that most USP students either end up dropping out, or going abroad for exchange or joint/double degree programmes, or NOC, or internships, in their last two years. I am doubtful that there can be much mingling between the upper two years and lower two years.”
He had a good point. And to top it off, all this difficulty comes before you even consider the impact that work and other responsibilities has on one’s free time (my condolences to you especially, Architecture students). The trial to escape unwanted phantomhood can be gruelling.
But, for anyone out there who may be trying: don’t give up. Because too often we keep falling into the trap of thinking that because something is the norm, the opposite is unfindable. Yes, many people might not be open to senior-junior friendships. But there are definitely those who are (any juniors out there, see if you can strike up a conversation with Shermaine). Yes, maybe many people drop out of USP, and go abroad, or otherwise become really busy and absent. But obviously that’s not everyone. With every generality, there is an exception.
And really, in the end, that’s exactly the point of this article. If you look too long at trends, you will inevitably – to invert an old saying – miss the trees for the forest. Not everyone thinks the same way, or has the same goals, or wants the same things. Phantoms are no exception. There are an infinite number of reasons to do what we do or be who we are. People are simply too diverse for us to be accurately represented with a single label.