One day several years ago, my friend Ehren got to talking with some buddies about which Hogwarts house they would be in. These conversations always involve an element of suspense. Perhaps you will find out that your friends think of you as a smart Ravenclaw because they appreciate your quick-witted commentary at Bachelor viewing parties. Perhaps your PowerPoint presentations have earned you a reputation as a brave Gryffindor among your coworkers, fighting for all that is good and right.
Or perhaps, like Ehren, you will have a friend who snaps everyone back to reality with a simple declaration: “Guys, we’d all be Hufflepuffs.”
“I was sort of offended,” Ehren recalls of the exchange. “But afterward I really appreciated his response and how defensive I got.”
In the popular imagination, the hardworking, good-natured Hufflepuff house of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is bit of a joke. A Second City sketch shows a Hufflepuff representative struggling to find an inspirational way to capture the house’s ethos. “I can’t digest lactose,” she declares. “That’s … not a skill,” the director responds. Comedian Mindy Kaling memorably declared, “Nobody wants to be a Hufflepuff.” And in a Very Potter Musical, Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore is way too preoccupied with the battle between good and evil to worry about a dorm full of, let’s be real, a bunch of happy potheads. “What the hell,” he asks, “is a Hufflepuff?”
But in recent years, the Hufflepuff pride movement has gained traction. The Atlantic published a vigorous defense of Hufflepuffs after Kaling’s comment in 2015, and in 2016, the Peoples Improv Theater mounted a critically acclaimed play that turned the humblest house into plucky heroes. In a culture that values individual achievements and reserves the most praise for people who strive to be exceptional, being kind and reliable hasn’t been a huge selling point. Now, on the 20th anniversary of the first Harry Potter book’s publication in the UK, it’s high time to reclaim the Puffs.
It’s a bit surprising that Hufflepuffs are seen as the worst of Hogwarts’ four houses, given that Rowling depicts Slytherins as a group largely composed of snobby eugenics enthusiasts. But outside the canon, being a Slytherin is basically code for saying that you’re an ambitious badass who could 100% pull off a leather jacket.
Hufflepuffs, meanwhile, are just trundling along, being friendly, making tasty snacks, and doing great in Herbology class. In Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, the Sorting Hat’s got nothing but good things to say about them: “They are just and loyal, those patient Hufflepuffs are true, and unafraid of toil.” And so for some Hufflepuff proponents, embracing the designation is a way to stick it to the elitists.
“I think he has a healthy Midwestern disdain for pomposity and delusions of grandeur,” Ehren says of the friend who declared his whole crew Hufflpeuffs. “My guess is that he thinks Hufflepuffs are the ‘regular folks’ of Harry Potter, who are normally inclined to be kind, work hard, enjoy life’s comforts, and strive for a sort of balanced life.”
In this way, the Hufflepuff pride movement is populist—in the leftist sense. The house is highly egalitarian. When the other three founders of Hogwarts stake claims to students who are brave, smart, or ambitious, Hufflepuff founder Helga Hufflepuff simply vows, “I’ll teach the lot, and treat them just the same.” Several self-identified Hufflepuffs I know expressed their appreciation for the house’s nonjudgmental, accepting mindset.
“I feel like Hufflepuff is the most accessible house,” says Samantha, a librarian living in North Carolina. “They don’t have to be anything exceptional, you just have to choose to be kind and work hard to be one of them. That makes me feel like anyone can choose to be a Hufflepuff.”
“I love that Hufflepuff is the house that takes everyone else,” adds my friend Jessica. “If you don’t fit into the other three, there’s still a place for you at Hufflepuff.”
To its detractors, Hufflepuff’s open-armed policy can make it seem like an unattractive choice. (“My ex-boyfriend once called me a Hufflepuff and I didn’t talk to him for a solid few days,” one source recalls.) Who doesn’t want to be chosen to join an exclusive group; to be told they’re special and deserve to be surrounded by other people who have been hand-picked for displaying similarly exceptional qualities? This is the whole premise of Ivy League colleges. Also meritocratic ideology. Also the dating app The League.
Well, a true Hufflepuff doesn’t give a damn about any of that.
“It’s often seen as the leftover house,” says Audrey, a student at Brown University. “But I think of it as being for non-extremists.”
Audrey admits that she was initially a bit deflated when her friends and family told her they thought she was a Hufflepuff. But she’s since embraced it as a designation for modest, well-rounded types.
“I think people want to be told what they’re excellent at,” Audrey says. “Ravenclaw affirms your intellectualism. But if you’re in Hufflepuff, you’re like, ‘Okay, I know I’m a good person—but what else?’”
At its core, this is what anti-Hufflepuffism seems to be about. Hufflepuffs are mostly known for being fundamentally decent, caring, open-minded people. And at this particular time, that’s seen as … kind of boring.
“The common perception tends to be that a quality like kindness … is a sort of weakness, that it makes you sort of silly or very complacent,” explains the Buddhist teacher and author Sharon Salzberg in a video for Big Think. Kindness is also a stereotypically feminine quality—which means that it’s more likely to be undervalued, by both men who are wary of appearing less than macho, and by women who (quite reasonably) want to receive recognition for possessing qualities like intelligence, courage, and ambition that have long gone overlooked.
Moreover, as Susan Cain writes in a recent New York Times op-ed, the contemporary cult of leadership means that people who display authority (Ravenclaw) and dominance (Gryffindor and Slytherin) tend to get the most praise. Folks who help each other out? Not so much.
That’s too bad, because the truth is that it is hard—even remarkable—to be a consistently kind person. Treating other people well is an active choice. It’s always tempting to act selfishly or take your anger out on someone else. And it’s even easier to do those things when you live in a culture that tells you being kind isn’t important or cool.
Rowling makes a similar point in a 2012 interview, offering a new perspective to people who feel disappointed about being labeled Hufflepuffs in the official Pottermore quiz. When a battle comes to Hogwarts in the final book of the series, she explains, Hufflepuffs stay and fight not because they want glory or attention, but because they want to do what’s right. “They didn’t want to show off, they weren’t being reckless,” she says. “That’s the essence of the Hufflepuff house.”
And that’s what a lot of us get wrong about Hufflepuffs, and about kindness in general. You can be caring as well as smart and brave and ambitious, as my coworker Katherine says. Choosing to embrace your identity as a Hufflepuff just means that kindness is the quality you value most in yourself.
It is at this point that I should make the world’s nerdiest confession: When I finally took the Pottermore quiz, I got Gryffindor—and breathed a sigh of relief. I’d been worried I would get Hufflepuff. I still suspect that I might be one, though the very fact that I’m resisting may mean that I’ve got too much ego to qualify. Like Ehren, I don’t want to see myself as someone who’s always getting overlooked. “It seems like Hufflepuffs aren’t protagonists,” he says, “and I think I’m not alone in hoping that I could be the hero of my own story.”
But having spoken to a number of Hufflepuffs for this article, it’s clear to me that they are all the protagonists of their own stories. It’s just that other people don’t always notice, because they’re too busy dismissing them out of hand. As my coworker Elan asks, “Why isn’t it exciting to be told that you’re a kind person?” And if it isn’t, then the joke’s not really on Hufflepuffs at all.