Opinion | Columns

The illusion of privacy

Soaking myself in the bath on an unremarkable Wednesday night, I am abruptly interrupted in my solitude by an uninvited intruder. Drowning in bewilderment, I instinctively drop my book over the remnants of my fading decency. I glance upward at this anonymous person who has bypassed the usual pleasantries exchanged by two strangers forced into an enclosed space. ìYour bath is leaking,î its shrill voice declares. I consider replying, ìIt may well be leaking, but, in case you havenít noticed, Iím naked,î but I withhold the sass and await further instruction. I oblige meekly when ordered to drain the contents of my bath, and then I dress. 

In the days following the incident I wonder why I merely nodded in response to these demands. Why I felt at a complete loss to utter a single syllable in a space that was supposedly my own. On reflection, my silence was a result of the figure’s complete nonchalance toward me and my bare, baffled complexion. This situation was, to a maintenance worker of a large institution, a regular occurrence. Barging into a student’s suite unannounced to address a plumbing issue was a perfectly normal and pragmatic operation. But, contrary to the worker’s indifference, the single turn of that master key had stolen away my naïve illusion of privacy. 

In the aftermath of this most peculiar incident my mind instinctively rendered up infrared images of the building in which I live. They mimicked those maps typical of shoot-em-up games for which I have never quite had the stomach. This architectural diagnosis of my hall with a multitude of pulsating dots representing people surrounding me offered up a glaring realization. We live packed like the proverbial can of sardines: Of course our privacy at college is limited! 

Yet as students we elaborately avoid this reality in earnest attempts to make homes of short-lived spaces. We scavenge to locate the most ironic of posters, paste our dearest high school memories to the walls, and arrange our growing collection of books chronologically (well, some of us do). The most fervent of college homemakers even roam into the gardening department and in the process smother the dubious smells we inevitably emit as busy-bodied 20-somethings.

But, for all our creative reimaginings, what really makes our temporary dorm room into a secluded but mistakenly private space is our apathy toward our neighbors. Sure, we may recognize that the series of dorms on our floor has inhabitants, but, if we seldom see these strangers and aren’t proactive in interacting with them, it becomes as if they don’t actually exist. This space consequently becomes our own. The reverse can be stated for first-year floors: The friendliness of fellow first-year students to one another transforms the otherwise grim corridors of Carman and John Jay into livable, vibrant places. This sentiment has echoes of the commonly observed Columbia phenomenon that comes mid-sophomore year: Social circles more or less lock down. The cause of this ailment is uncertain—a dose of indifference infused with a routinely unhealthy workload perhaps? 

A demonstration of this post-first-year unsociability is the manner in which small weekend gatherings are shut down. In my early days at college the routine RA expression “your neighbors have made a noise complaint” greatly deceived me. I summoned up caricatured notions of elderly locals complaining that the college students that lived in their area were behaving like college students. I was wholly sympathetic toward their frustrations of the breach in the decibel levels required for maintaining sanity. For we are not quite so engulfed in our baby blue bubble as we love to dramatically exclaim. We do impact the outside world. Yet when I discovered these complaints stemmed largely from fellow students living in the same building I was aghast: It signified a drastic communication gap between peers.

It is a cliché already widely circulated that college is as much a social as an academic experience. Many miles from the watchful gaze of our overprotective parents, college teaches us to solve our problems with personalized solutions. Unsurprisingly, in a world brimming with diversity and whole mountain ranges of opinion, human differences are the most arduous and fraught of the lot. To put it bluntly, using a resident adviser as a middle man to remedy whatever issues you have with your neighbors is desperately flawed. Not only is it somewhat cowardly, it is worryingly out of touch with the purposes of living away from home. It is ironic for a campus so laudably aware of community outreach that we frequently fail to reach out within our very community.

In truth, both the perpetrator and the perpetrated are equally at fault in this hypothetical party scenario. The party-makers should have been more conscientious. The reporters should have understood that their private space was in fact inextricably linked to the world around them. We often forget the delicate proximity we live in relation to one another. This was the root of my bathtub blunder—in my bubbly wonder-world I had forgotten my fellow students and the very possibility of my impact. A little face-to-face conversation is all that is required, otherwise you might just end up as I did: deluded and caught naked in the bath.

Richard Whiddington is a Columbia College junior majoring in East Asian languages and cultures. Whiddy Banter runs alternate Thursdays. 

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


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Anonymous posted on

these continue to be brilliant.