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In defense of Bicker

Bicker [bik-er]

Verb: To engage in an angry, petty dispute or quarrel. To 99.9% of the English-speaking world, the word “bicker” means just that. But to undergraduates at Princeton, the word takes on a new meaning — a meaning that up until recently was somewhat of a mystery to me. It was an unknowable specter that haunted conversation, carrying grim connotations of exclusivity and rejection. I felt as though Bicker was a process of character sabotage and pointed judgment, a process to which anyone should be terrified to be subjected. But, after going through both sides of Bicker, both being selected and selecting, I’ve realized that the way I had previously characterized the process was wrong. Bicker has much less to do with disputes and quarrels than the name indicates and much more to do with more positive interactions between college students than I ever would have expected.


Before I continue, I establish that everything I write in this column is based on my own personal experience and may not reflect the views of all individuals or of all of the clubs.

So far as I understand it, the purpose of Bicker is to introduce the membership of a club to potential recruits in a condensed time period. Whether through games, interviews or simply conversation, getting a person’s “vibe” is the principle goal. Everything has an “icebreaker” feel and often seem like things that I would’ve done with my ‘zee group. Of course, the content of the activities is almost always less appropriate than you’d find in any activity during freshman week, but since when have college students been appropriate? Through these activities, people are often allowed to express their goofier sides, sides that aren’t expressed all that often. Furthermore, all of this occurs under a strict no-alcohol policy — a rule, surprisingly, by which everyone abides. All of these activities are ultimately aimed at deciding a club’s future membership, but I’ll explain later why this is not so strange an idea as it might sound.After every Bicker come the member discussions, which I must admit are so peculiar that they inspired me to write this column. I understand that the idea of selection is a controversial topic, especially at Princeton, but it is something that we should be honest with ourselves about and realize that it’s a natural social process, which Bicker simply formalizes. In my own experience, when members spoke about future members, it simply verbalized things that everyone thought or felt anyway. Whether or not people should speak their minds and be honest about their feelings is a topic for another column, but I was blown away by the sheer candor and honesty that Bicker produced.

But it was the content of the discussion that threw me for a loop. I had expected a smear campaign, minute after minute of tearing people down and explaining why they were unfit to join the club. It was nothing of the sort. I couldn’t believe how overwhelmingly positive the discussion was, with compliments and good words to be said about everyone who bickered. What I had previously thought to be a negative process of weeding out all of the “unworthy” turned out to be a painful process of trying to choose from a beloved pool of students, each and every one of them adored by someone in the club. In a place where people don’t always express how much they care about one another, discussions were a breath of fresh air.

Whether Bicker is ultimately good or bad is not for me to say. But those who virulently oppose the Bicker process should bear in mind how much of our society, and especially our university, is predicated on exclusion. West College is always proud to announce year after year record-low admittance rates, which can be directly translated into more and more students being rejected every year. How is it all right to celebrate rejecting high school seniors from a college but suddenly a grievous sin to reject members from a club? A college rejection is unarguably far more significant in the life of the applicant than a club rejection. For some reason it’s fine to judge people based on their academic or athletic skill when both can be as, if not more, random than Bicker criteria. If anyone believes that one form of rejection is better than the other, please email me. I would love to hear your arguments.

Last week has led me to reevaluate how I think about the Bicker process at Princeton and proven to me that it is often a system focused much more on people’s virtues than their vices, a conclusion which demands reflection when considering the relationship between the Street and the University.

Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at