Drinks on Me: Venmo Culture at Yale

Illustrated by Evelyn Wu

A frustrated Oct. 4 post by the admin of the popular @yale_affirmations Instagram account read: “This university is so stingy like how are you making me PAY for printing in the first place but then also charging 25¢ for printing something in COLOR. It’s giving [off the vibe of a] rich kid who makes you Venmo them $2. Those kids are a microcosm of Yale actually.” The author introduced the avaricious aristocrat as if they were a stock character, a recurring foe that encapsulates the temperament of the entire university. But are such forced transactions really a defining feature of the Yale social experience?

“Yeah, there’s this super rich kid who has brought people to a party at his country house—and yet at a party here I saw him making him Venmo people per shot,” Freddie*, a Yale student, ranted in response to my question. She continued to rattle off other instances of villainous Venmo-related misdeeds, the worst offense being one committed in her very own suite. “I let this girl use my common room to have a pregame with her friends even though I didn’t feel like going out,” she explained. “They bought a ton of alcohol—three handles of vodka, Trulys, Mike’s, Smirnoff. . . I take—keep in mind this is my room—I take one singular Smirnoff Ice, sit down on my couch in my common room, and start drinking it. This fuck, she looks at me, and she says, ‘Yeah, that’ll just be three or four dollars.’ I’m conflict averse, so I paid her… But I was fuming.”

Clearly, guests are frustrated when they encounter what they see as unnecessary stinginess. But so, too, are hosts annoyed by their guests’ disrespect. “My friend dropped over $100 for a small party she was hosting,” Jade, another student, related. “She wanted at least some people to Venmo her back but she ended up losing so much money.” Resentment towards party-related transactions, or lack thereof, seems especially common compared to other types of payment. One student described this phenomenon: “When going out to a restaurant or ordering takeout, people often Venmo immediately for their portion of the meal. With alcohol, people might wait until the next day to Venmo, or just never do it in the first place. Plus, food is easy to portion up and divide out—you pay for what you got and split the tip and tax—while splitting up alcohol is much more ambiguous and elusive.” These common frustrations seem to stem not merely from individual inconsiderate actions, but from the lack of a common definition of proper Venmo etiquette. What Yale seems to need is a prescriptive set of rules that dictate the relationship between host and guest—a modern-day xenia. With the goal of finding common ground between opposing sensibilities—and alleviating the overall sense of frustration around payment at parties—I decided to ask seasoned socialites about the norms of Venmo.

  • As the host, am I entitled to ask people to Venmo me?

Freddie, once again seeing things from the perspective of the guest, argued that the host forgoes this right when hosting a larger function: “I feel like if you buy alcohol for a larger pregame or party, you can’t expect to be paid back.” Jade, meanwhile, admitted that it is rare to Venmo at big parties but she sees it as her “duty” to Venmo at a smaller pregame.  “I have respect for the people who put up signs at parties with their Venmo username. I will always Venmo the host if I see a sign like that. But if there’s no indication at a larger event, I won’t seek the host out to pay.” Jade elaborated on the importance of being a respectful guest: “It’s already a sacrifice to host, you’re accepting that your space is inevitably gonna get trashed. It’s the least I can do to Venmo them a couple dollars.” Freddie, meanwhile, sees paying as an unnecessary formality. She points out how repeatedly asking guests to Venmo can ruin the intimacy and casual air of the event.

When presented with Freddie’s opinion, Jade argued that making it the cultural norm not to Venmo gives more social currency to those who are already financially advantaged: “If the host genuinely feels like they have the ability to pay for the whole event, I’m not gonna contest that. But if they don’t have the means to drop hundreds of dollars, should they just not be able to host?” Freddie, on the other hand, highlighted that, in her experience, it is disproportionately wealthy students who perpetuate the culture of charging others in the first place: “My friends and I—who are mostly first generation/low income—will pay for each other without hesitation; we didn’t grow up putting money on a pedestal.” 

  • If I do Venmo the host, how much should I be paying?

Yalies seemed to agree that the “pay per shot” model is neither common nor valid. “I would happily pay a base rate,” Jade explained, “but I’m not individually calculating how much I drank and continually updating my total.” The question of how much to pay is a frustrating one even beyond parties, she elaborated. “With Venmo it’s much easier to be super duper exact in the amount you’re paying someone back, down to the cent. Unlike cash, where you more casually round for the sake of ease, Venmo sort of forces a stricter and more formal transaction.” 

  • What do I caption my payment? Should I make it private or public?

“Of course it’s funny to caption a really innocuous payment for lunch or something as ‘sex and drugs’,” Jade explained, “but when you’re actually paying for those things I feel like people are a bit more discreet.” The stress of captioning a Venmo transaction (which is available publicly unless the user manually chooses to make it private) encapsulates the stress of displaying one’s life on social media in general—the effort involved in appearing effortless. Making payments private, and thus only viewable by the sender and the recipient, may seem like a solution, but the desire to signal quirkiness can still be present. Jade, who keeps all transactions private on Venmo, admitted to still spending unnecessary time thinking about captioning her transactions: “I usually just end up doing a string of emojis.” Another Yale student described a desire to make his payments private, but his own reliance on the app for mild entertainment makes him feel obligated to provide others with the same opportunity. “I actually found out that my friend did shrooms via Venmo,” he explained. “She had been thinking about it, and then I noticed she Venmoed someone [and captioned the transaction with] a mushroom emoji. I knew exactly what had happened.”

  • I didn’t get enough money back. Can I Venmo request my guests?

Yalies generally seem to find the “Venmo request” feature awkward and undesirable. Freddie described it as “passive-aggressive,” while another student explained that he would always rather verbally ask or even text before using the actual feature. Part of this may be due to the public nature of the Venmo feed—a fulfilled request will read “A charged B” rather than “B paid A.” Thus, the fact that you bothered your friend about paying up is broadcasted to the world. “Instead, just have your Venmo name listed at the function, or maybe send a text out beforehand,” Jade advised.

***

Finding or creating a common code of conduct for Venmo seems near-impossible. Responses about if and when to pay are as varied as the myriad of transactions made through the app each day. But we still have the time to work it out. College is a test run for the rest of our lives, a chance to think carefully and conscientiously about everything from medieval poetry to gene regulation to, yes, proper policy for party payment. In a few years time, instead of hosting weekly pregames in your dingy L-dub suite, you may be entertaining glamorous guests in a posh penthouse—how will you host? 

 

*All names are pseudonyms.

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