I’m incredibly guilty of the classic “college look away”. I’ll pretend to text, stare straight down at the ground, or act as if I’m completely oblivious to the world around me just to avoid making uncomfortable eye contact with someone or having to say “hi” to them. Sometimes I’ll even take a horrendously long detour, or enter a building I have no business being in, just to avoid the smallest of interactions. I do it to to past classmates, former crushes and acquaintances, people I knew intimately, and people I’ve never met, but know a disturbing amount of information about.
Most college students come preprogrammed to act in this way, in fact, I’d say the people who refrain from doing such a thing are in the minority. It’s pretty easy to justify this type of behavior; it’s easy to convince yourself that choosing to not interact is the safest way of avoiding awkward conversation or humiliating rejection. No one wants to wave to someone, or say “hi” and be completely ignored or dismissed; no one wants to get trapped in a painfully uncomfortable conversation about nothing, or be forced to interact with someone they hate. We’d rather shut ourselves off completely than open ourselves up to discomfort or awkwardness, and ignore their existence than let them take up any of our time and space.
There are people I don’t acknowledge because it seems as if there’s a mutual understanding that we are nonentities in each other’s lives. If I run into the friend of a former friend I will most likely not say “hi” because I only knew them by extension, or if I run into someone I was in a club with I will ignore them because I didn’t really ever know them at all to begin with. But what I’ve realized is that there is now some sort of criteria when it comes to acknowledgment and that I’ve at least begun to classify people into one of two groups: “the acknowledged” and “the unacknowledged”. It’s a dangerous system to use because of how tempting and easily justifiable it is to put most of the population in the second box:
“Oh he was in my math class, he probably wouldn’t remember me, so I don’t have to say hi.”
“Oh she’s homeless, she’s probably mentally ill or on drugs, so I shouldn’t acknowledge her.”
“Oh I treated him poorly, he probably still hates me, it’s easier if I just ignore him.”
“Oh I HATE that person, I don’t want to make them think I like them, so I better just look down.”
It seems to me that we treat people the way we fear they’ll treat us, as if it’s some sort of preemptive strike. We don’t say “hi” because we’ve convinced ourselves we won’t be given the same respect in return, and we project and irrationally read into situations so much that there are now issues in existence that have no real basis. We’ve allowed our fear of looking foolish, or being ignored stop us from opening ourselves up to other people, and you can’t help but think, “why do I need someone else to do the right thing to convince ourselves it is worth doing?” Isn’t waving to someone and acknowledging their existence a nice thing to do, even if they don’t do it in return? And instead of wishing things were better or different, shouldn’t I be the one trying to bring about that change?
I know firsthand how great it feels when someone I wouldn’t expect to acknowledge me waves from across campus, and I know how shitty I feel when I avoid someone I should have said “hi” to. I’m starting to worry that I’m spending too much time in my head and that my precautionary disposition is encouraging a type of disengagement that I don’t want to foster. I think the only way to fight against this type of behavioral programming is to think less about how other people affect you and more about how you could potentially affect others. Instead of walking around and thinking about whether or not someone will wave to us, or how awkward it’ll be if they ignore our gesture, maybe we can just make the decision to wave to every single person we know. Maybe if we acknowledge every single person we know it’ll help quiet any feelings of awkwardness or hesitation we currently feel in those situations. Maybe we’ll even reconnect or strengthen the relationships we have with these people. Maybe us waving to that person will give them the incentive to wave to someone else and encourage greater positivity. And so what if we’re ignored or look like fools for putting ourselves out there? Doing good and feeling good about yourself will always outweigh any feelings of stupidity or self consciousness you may experience in the process.