It happens on the first day of classes in the minutes before the teacher arrives, and when you step aboard the bus, when you sit down in a crowded cafeteria or climate-controlled waiting room.
You’re surrounded by strangers. You don’t know a soul. You don’t know what to do. Everyone’s sitting around in dutiful silence like extras on a movie set. Eyes dart around the room. For a moment, someone’s looking at you. As soon as you look up, the person’s eyes flit away as though to say, “Oh, I was just looking past you to that very interesting potted Zantedeschia aethiopica plant next to the credenza.”
No one wants to be noticed noticing anyone else. You feel awkward and look for something to cover up the fact you have nothing to do. Maybe you’ll look out the window or at the wallpaper or pick up a copy of that free campus newspaper and pretend to read it.
What would you hear if you could put the mental monologues around you on speakerphone?
“Gosh, look at that cute guy over there. Maybe I should go over there and talk to him. He looks like he doesn’t have anything to do. He’s just looking at his fingernails. But who knows. Maybe he’s studying to be a manicurist and is working on a very important fingernail self-renovation project, and he’ll get all upset if I go and interrupt his concentration. He’d think I’m some needy, high-maintenance blabbermouth who can’t keep her mouth shut. I’d better just play it safe and stay put.”
“Gosh, look at that cute girl over there. Maybe I should go up and talk to her, but what would I say? If I asked her what her name is she’d probably roll her eyes and say, ‘It’s none of your business.’ And if I went up and told her my name, she’d roll her eyes and say, ‘Whatever!’ I could go up and tell her she has nice hair, but then she’d think I was trying to flirt with her. Well, I would be trying to flirt with her, but if she knows I’m trying to flirt with her she might see me as perpetuating a centuries-long cycle of male-dominated, heterosexist social interaction dynamics of selfish exploitation. I’d better just play it safe and stay put.”
We have so many excuses for maintaining our isolation. There’s never a right thing to say. If you talk about the weather, it means you’re boring. If you talk about your favorite computer game, it means you’re a geek with no life. If you talk about yourself, it means you’re a narcissistic megalomaniac, and if you ask someone else about themselves, it means you’re a meddling busybody. Worst of all would be to go up to someone and just start talking about whatever’s on your mind. Only crazy people do that. Best just to play it safe and stay put.
And so it goes. The days pass into weeks, the months pass into years and we all pass each other like polite, unrocked ships in the night, vessels sailing gently along the waveless sea of boundless social tedium.
Who are we trying to impress by being so well behaved? Why is it so imperative that we allay any suspicion that we might have a sense of curiosity for those around us?
Maybe it’s some holdover from Stone Age rituals of tribal warfare and arranged marriages, when breaking a taboo meant angering the volcano god and bringing storms of molten lava down from the sky.
Or maybe it’s just a remnant of our precocious toddlerhood, when our parents worked so hard to rein us in so that we didn’t try people’s patience asking everyone in the checkout line, “Do you wanna see my outie belly button?” Or maybe after a lifetime spent living up to people’s expectations, we’re all afraid of adding any element of spontaneity to our lives for fear it will remind us of who we really are. After all, the things we’ve sacrificed to get in good with our high school clique of choice, to pass the job interview, make our parents proud, impress the scholarship committee, adhere to the latest celebrity diet; after all that, the last thing we need is have an impulse from inside ourselves send us off in an unpredictable direction.
So button your lip and stay in your shell and kill the awkward time by looking at your fingernails and thinking about getting home and watching some TV shows where no one makes a fool of themselves because they always have a script that tells them what to say. And most importantly, if anyone unfamiliar tries to break your resolve by coming up and saying hi, you’ll know what to do:
Just roll your eyes and say, “Whatever.”