The Various Meanings of “Popular”

“You’re so popular!”

I remember last year, after we both finished classes for that day, I had a long conversation with my friend at a café.


Me: “I don’t know why, but I happen to know quite a lot of people from that cultural studies class!”

My friend: “That’s because you’re so popular!”


Me: “Oh, I know that girl [one of her close friends]! She’s so nice!”

My friend: “You even happen to know all of my friends! Oh, you’re so popular!”


My friend: “Are you close with those two girls [two of my close friends]?”

Me: “Well, I don’t know… I mean, we celebrate each others’ birthdays…”

My friend: “That’s a close friendship! Oh, you’re so popular!”


Even to this day, I’m not exactly sure what she meant by “popular.” But she used that word countless times that day. Although that was so sweet of her, I honestly think she’s more popular than I am because she seems to receive countless text messages and spends so much time with her closest friends outside the classrooms. On the other hand, I don’t spend that much time outside classes with my friends. I’m the kind of girl who usually spends time at the school lounge or the library by myself in between the classes. If I happen to meet someone I know in those places, we might end up sitting, chatting, and studying together, but that’s pretty much it. I occasionally go for hangouts with my friends, but I don’t think I spend time with people as much as they do. But still, quite a few people mistakenly think that I know a lot of people and have relatively many friends. I’m grateful to hear those words, but I honestly don’t fully agree with it.

Photo by Brannon Naito

Believe it or not, I was suffering from “communication disorder” until I was in middle school in my home country. Many of my classmates tried to talk to me, but I was scared to have a conversation with them. When my teachers told the class to choose a partner to do a pair work (in a classroom with an odd number of students), I was always the one who was left out and had to either do it by myself or join [a pair] as a group of three.

Studying abroad during my high school years changed my personality to some extent. I started to overcome this “communication disorder” and made a few good friends whom I still keep in touch with today. By that time, I was not even afraid of making general conversations with people I have met. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I was never alone in my high school life. I was usually sitting by myself on the school bus, while many others were having a conversation with each other on their way home.

Around the time I entered university, social media started to become so commonly used by university students. Some people have so many followers on Instagram and thousands of friends on Facebook. However, I don’t have myriad followers and friends on any of the social media that I use. I don’t chat on a random topic with my friends on a daily basis (I do it occasionally but not every day). I mainly chat with people via social media when it is necessary for us to do so.

Considering my life history, I honestly don't even think I’m so popular.

Photo by Prateek Katyal

Recalling that conversation with my friend at a café and reflecting on my personal life, I began thinking, what does “popular” actually mean? I even searched it online to find the definition of it. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, this term means “commonly liked or approved.” Despite reading this dictionary definition, I’m still not sure what does it mean by a person “being liked” by so many people…

A few of my friends think that a popular person is “remembered” by numerous people, and more so, many of them want to talk to him/her. However, I think that a “popular” person “never” spends time alone, and instead, meets his/her close friends frequently and receives many messages on social media. And I guess a “popular” person can make a boyfriend/girlfriend easily!? (haha)

After being confused with the meaning of this word for a long time, I came up with the conclusion that there’s no standard definition of “popular.” The word, “popular,” has various meanings and thus it can be interpreted differently by each person, and there are no right or wrong answers to each interpretation.

Don’t worry if you think you’re not popular. I don’t think I’m popular either.

Maybe some of your friends think (at least inside their hearts) that you’re popular. You don’t have to agree nor disagree with them. Just make sure to wholeheartedly thank them for their sweetest words.

Based on my life experience, I'll give you a piece of advice. Don’t be afraid of talking to people. You never know when you can make new friends. Most importantly, please keep in mind that “popular” is not always determined by the number of friends nor followers that you have on social media.

Don’t compare yourself with others on your popularity. You just be you. I'll just be me.