Yesterday, I was pranked by a group of 14-year-old girls. Well, they believed they pranked me, anyway.
I was standing by Lerner Hall when the group of young, energetic girls—girls much cooler than I was in high school—walked by. They were giggling together while one especially confident girl took the lead. She approached me, looked me in the eyes, and vibrantly shouted, “Hello! How are you?” “I’m good, how are you?” I responded, not quite as vibrantly but with effort to disguise my confusion. The girls laughed and regrouped into their herd before disappearing onto Low Beach.
How curious it is that this kind of social interaction is viewed as hilarious. Somehow, the same reaction once elicited by my childhood *69 calls—one of giddiness and slight rebellion—can now be recreated by mere human interaction. In some ways, acknowledging strangers evokes laughter because it is so uncommon in New York City. In other ways, it’s a way to break our unspoken social barrier.
This social barrier is something that spans far beyond the realm of teenage-hood. Even at Columbia, we avoid interacting with strangers. Although we are surrounded by wildly interesting and bizarrely talented individuals, we are too afraid to break the barrier and get to know those around us. It is ridiculous that there’s this unspoken expectation for us to ignore one another. When we exist in a community of so many high-achieving, downright fascinating humans, why are we conditioned to avoid interacting with strangers?
Oftentimes, we are unapproachable because we are afraid. We fear getting rejected, inconveniencing others, and looking powerless. We are conditioned to seem aloof and stoic so we appear to have our shit together when we actually don’t. In truth, loneliness prevails, and stoicism only exacerbates the issue by leading us all to believe that we’re the odd one out. By breaking our unspoken barrier of social isolation, we can begin to solve Columbia’s loneliness problem.
The same day I was “pranked,” I accidentally broke this social barrier myself. As I walked in front of Butler, I saw a friend in the distance wearing a stunning pink dress fit for New York Fashion Week. Being the persistent human I am, I waved aggressively and said hello at least four times until I realized, as she emerged from the shadows of College Walk, she was not who I’d mistaken her to be. In fact, she was a complete stranger.
The most interesting part of this interaction, however, was how her expression shifted from confusion (during hello number one and two) to excitement (during hello number three and four). Suddenly, she responded with so much excitement that you would’ve thought we were pen pals meeting for the very first time. She even updated me about her friend Brooke, offering intimate details about their lives. Somehow, my persistence to say hello was so strange that it convinced her that she did, in fact, know me. When I passed her again later that day, she smiled.
Because of this, in the back of one of my class notebooks, I began a list of instances in which Columbia students are likely to talk to strangers. So far, I have the following: when we need someone to watch our stuff in Butler momentarily, when someone happens to be wearing a T-shirt from that one band we saw at Brooklyn Steel, and when we apologize for accidentally touching someone. I can’t help but marvel at the ridiculousness of it all. Why do we need an excuse to reach out?
I’ve also noticed an unsettling number of apologies each time someone begins an interaction with a stranger. “I’m sorry to bother you, but...” and “this might sound weird, but...” aren’t, or at least shouldn’t be, the only ways to preface your first words with a new human being. If you’ve taken the opportunity to talk to another person, why not make it pleasant? “Thank you for watching my backpack” and “the streaks in your hair are utterly magnificent” sound much more uplifting than apologies. After all, each interaction is the formation of a new relationship, even if that relationship lasts only 10 seconds—like when those teenagers “pranked” me. Rather than expressing my confusion and continuing about my day, I should have taken those girls by surprise with warmth.
Although we fear doing so, confidently putting ourselves out there and making an effort to stop apologizing for blameless acts would enrich Columbia’s notoriously lacking social scene. Rather than shrinking ourselves the moment we walk into a room, shamelessly engaging with each other—even if doing so makes us feel a little uncomfortable—helps prevent the common feeling of loneliness on campus, a feeling many of us are too afraid and ashamed to openly express. The more vulnerable we become, the more likely we are to connect.
Since meditating upon this topic for so long, I’ve begun to notice the people who smile at me in passing, regardless of whether we’ve interacted. In my head, it’s the most secret of societies at Columbia. When someone smiles at me, I add them to the mental list of members and think to myself, maybe Columbia isn’t so cold after all.
Katie Santamaria is a sophomore in Columbia College studying nonfiction creative writing. She is a stern believer in the power of Times New Roman 11-point font and would rather not explain why nonfiction creative writing isn’t an oxymoron. Send your thoughts and podcast recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org. Wholesome Content runs alternate Thursdays.
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