There’s a phenomenon at this school that is never discussed in campus publications, nor is it brought up in casual conversation. We pretend not to know or care about it. Yet it pervades and dictates our lives with a power that surpasses alcohol, classes, and Board Plus. We can’t shirk it from our attention any longer. So let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about campus-eye-contact-culture.
What is “campus-eye-contact-culture?” It’s a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, and multi-hyphenated term that I just made up, and it encompasses the set of behaviors surrounding eye-contact on campus.
I’d say Harvard kids, overall, are very good at maintaining eye-contact. Whether connecting with a finance recruiter, connecting with an investment banker, or connecting with a finance recruiter, each Harvard student seems to have an uncanny ability to maintain an “adult” conversation, looking the other person straight in the eyes all the way.
That’s easy. But when you have such a high number of students who attend the same classes, live in the same Houses, or go to the same parties, much more ambiguous situations of eye-contact interaction are bound to arise. And the question we must ask as a campus-eye-contact-culture-concerned-community is, “How the Hell do we make those situations less awkward?”
Here’s a typical example: While walking in the Yard, you see someone that you used to see regularly in your freshman seminar. You are accustomed to saying a quick “hello” to the other person in passing but not much beyond that. However, on this occasion, you are all the way across the Yard from the other person, on the same path, walking towards one another, when you make initial eye-contact. Suddenly, your entire world boils down to a split-second choice between some not-so-great possibilities:
1. Yell your quick “Hello” across the Yard at the top of your lungs. In doing so, you expended your “hello” early, so you approach each other in silence, all while still making eye-contact or going in and out between phases of eye-contact that may or may not coincide with the other person’s. Additionally, the other person may look confused, wondering if it was really he or she that you were yelling at.
2. Maintain eye-contact for the entire 15 seconds it takes to get within speaking range. In doing so, you may trip on the brave squirrels or tourists in the path. Or you may make the other person feel awkward since you barely know them, causing them to avert their gaze, then look back at you to see if you are still looking at them, and then avert their gaze again, repeating the process until it’s safe to say “hello.”
3. Leap off the asphalt, vaulting over those flimsy string barrier things that are surprisingly good at keeping people off the grass, and drastically change your path.
4. Immediately avert your gaze while the other person does the same; that way, you both enter into a silent agreement not to look up again until you are at a more comfortable range.
There is no easy way out. Even the fourth option, the one that seems least awkward, is built upon a deep-seeded awkwardness. Fundamentally, you are both lying about the initial eye-contact, and you both know it. Like much of the ambiguities of campus-eye-contact-culture, the awkwardness is hidden.
This kind of “awkward undercurrent” is present in many other situations too: Should you make eye-contact in the hallway with that kid who speaks a lot in section, but who you have never really spoken to outside of class? What kind of greeting do you give your distinguished professor in passing? How do you interact with someone you think you may have hooked up with a few nights ago but can’t really remember? How do you avoid interacting with your ugly roommate—Andrew Wyner ’16?
We can’t let the awkward undercurrent persist. We should be bringing the awkwardness out, facing the problem head on, eye-to-eye. I’m thinking University task forces; I’m thinking Community Conversations; I’m thinking campus-eye-contact-culture-counselors.
But there’s a problem: You can’t simply “talk about” eye-contact. That’s like talking to someone about toilet paper wiping strategies—it may lead to hugely time-saving dialogue, but it’s just too gross to be worth it. Similarly, as soon as you start talking to someone about eye-contact, you’re admitting that you are incapable of communicating with them on an even plane. Thus, any conversation you then have about eye-contact is doomed from the beginning. And it may lead to more awkwardness in the future.
So, if there’s no talking about it, what’s left? Well, you could leave Harvard. But then you’d realize that other people outside of Harvard have eyes too. And a lot of people in the “real world” are less awkward than Harvard students, amplifying your relative awkwardness.
And beyond that? Well, maybe that last point is exactly it. Maybe if we all just accept that everyone else at Harvard is a little awkward too, we can just relax about it. Awkwardness is, after all, the struggle of acting out a social norm. So if awkwardness becomes the accepted social norm, then there’s really no awkwardness at all.
I hope that makes sense. Anyway, those of you who’ve read this far know that I feel awkward, at least. And maybe because of that you won’t feel that awkward in the future.
Unless you’re that kid from my freshman seminar. In which case, “Hi!” (Look down, end column.)
Dashiell F. Young-Saver ‘16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.