Early Lessons in the Snowflake Phenomenon


Being the new kid here has me thinking about beginnings of all sorts, but the ones that have most persistently insinuated itself into my thoughts recently have to do with the early days of my association with the military. I was in college, and my high school sweetheart was a Firstie (senior) at the Naval Academy. The previous year, we had embarked upon our one and only matchmaking venture: I invited my roommate to come up to Annapolis with me, and "Sampson" convinced his roommate to come hang out with us.

They hit it off, and we found ourselves living the plot of a sitcom: roommates dating roommates! With hi-jinks, and Ring Dances, and sharp-looking uniforms! How peachy!

For the most part, it was fine and dandy -- right up until we ran headlong into the phenomenon of the “snowflake,” as a wise SpouseBUZZ author would later term it.

Sampson and I did the majority of our communicating via instant messaging. Most evenings would find us on our respective computers, doing homework and chatting intermittently as the workload allowed. Our night-owl and procrastinatory tendencies meant that we often didn’t say good night until pretty late in the evening.

Sampson’s roommate, however, was wont to finish his homework in a timely fashion hit the rack by 2200 every night. My roommate, another night owl, was frequently flummoxed by her boyfriend’s early bedtime. “Is Sampson still awake?” she’d ask me.

“Yeah, why?”

“Could you ask him what my boyfriend is doing?”

I would oblige, and the answer came back as often as not, “He’s asleep, and has been for half an hour.”

I didn’t think much of it, but the questions grew more frequent. “Are you still talking to Sampson?” “Is my boyfriend asleep already?” “Why doesn’t he IM with me as long as Sampson IMs with you?”

I grew frustrated at what I was beginning to see as an interrogation. My roommate grew frustrated that Sampson and I didn’t say good night until quite late, while her boyfriend would talk for a few minutes, beg off to do homework, and go to bed early.

We had some tense moments, each aggravated at the other’s apparent lack of understanding. I privately seethed over the fact that they hadn’t started dating until her boyfriend was senior enough to have privileges like more weekend liberty, having a car at school, and access to instant messaging. She was sad that she hadn’t talked to her boyfriend since yesterday? Well, I was so gosh-darn salty that I had gone through not getting to talk in real time to my boyfriend for months. She didn’t know how good she had it!

It wasn’t until years later that some things came to light that would have saved us some serious vexation. We were just talking about it a few months ago when all of us were in Annapolis for a homecoming football game. She told me, “I didn’t realize that when you and Sampson were online, you weren’t actually talking the whole time!”

To her, it had looked like we were spending hours every night deep in conversation. In reality, we were mostly doing homework and only popping in for quick bursts of chit-chat. When she talked with her boyfriend online, they were each giving their full attention to the conversation; naturally, she assumed that we did the same. Dingbat that I was, it never occurred to me that I could be giving her the impression that the chat window was getting our full focus; my answers of “Yeah, he is,” to her queries as to whether Sampson was still online led her to believe that we were constantly in contact. I sure wish I had thought enough about how my words could be interpreted to say instead, “Yes, but he’s too busy with homework to chat much.”

My roommate and I fell easily into the assumption that our boyfriends’ Academy routines were identical. They were the in the same class, the same company, the same room... same everything, right? We failed to take into account differences in major, in temperament, and even in sleep habits, and we wound up exasperating each other needlessly because of it. We survived our mutual misunderstandings and remain good friends to this day, but I sure don’t care to repeat the scenario with anyone else.

Now, as Sampson and I muddle through our first deployment, I can look back on that early lesson in the snowflake phenomenon and be grateful for such a good reminder to think carefully about how I characterize our personal experiences to other milspouses. Perhaps more importantly, I need to try -- and believe me, I don’t always succeed -- not to judge those experiences against those related by other spouses, even those in the same detachment. I have no excuse for failing to realize that key details can get lost in translation.

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