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The Cold Shoulder--Harvard Style

By Kevin S. Davis

As I never fail to remind everyone I know, I'm a born and raised, 100 percent Northern California boy. And frankly, I'm not sure I can ever get used to this northeastern climate. My friends from Southern California, Alabama and Florida all say the same thing: Harvard is just too damn cold.

Lest you be mislead into thinking I'm going to whimper about the temperature, let me assure you that it's not the weather I'm talking about. Although the excess of snow may still be my most popular gripe and though my New England born neighbors tire of hearing me extol the virtues of the Golden State's perpetual spring, after two long winters I have almost grown accustomed to the idea that not all of my facial accoutrements will survive Harvard intact.

No, when I say climate , I don't mean the unmistakable cold of the Boston tundra. What I am talking about is the Harvard attitude. People here just don't say hi.

I'm guilty. I admit it. Somehow I'm sure we all are. I see people every day in the Eliot dining hall, in my classes, on the street. But the sight of a familiar face often just doesn't seem enough to elicit from me a simple "Hello."

In part, I suppose, this is a result of the environment. Harvard is a big, impersonal place. And for all but the eight days of fall and the ten days of sunshine in May, the cold keeps us inside. When we do go out, and we all don our shirts scarves, earmuffs, hoods, jackets and boots, we become almost unrecognizable, hibernating creatures, quietly shuffling through the snow--anonymous.

Plus, I'm told, the fast-paced lifestyle of the East Coast precludes the "Frivolity" of California-style interaction. So as for the reticence, my roommate explains, "It's a northeastern thing."

I suspect, however, that this is not the real reason we don't acknowledge our classmates and housemates. It's not just about the climate or the local customs. Instead it speaks to a deeper problem with the social dynamic of Harvard.

An experience in one of my discussion sections last year illustrates the point precisely. It was the first section meeting, and some of us were a few minutes early. One woman, a first-year, began a series of unprompted introductions.

While I played along, and was glad to learn the names of several of my fellow students, all of us, myself included, exchanged little awkward judgmental glances over her shameless display of friendliness. Faces seemed to say "What is she doing?" and "Why is she doing this?" and even "What if I don't want to know these people?"

Sure enough, within a week the effects of the introductions had worn off. Few of us acknowledged each other in class except by pointing fingers and I Agree-with-What-he-said-she-saids. Outside of class there was, well nothing.

If you'll pardon the rambling analogy of an economics (and history) concentrator, I liken this phenomenon to a system of credits and debits in which we all try to avoid red ink on the balance sheet of our personal pride.

Instead of risking our ego capital on the investment of a greeting, and possibly losing face (What if I say hi and no one says hi back?), we all keep it safely tucked away in our mental banks where the rate of return is essentially zero, but a least constant. Big deal, you say. So I don't say anything. What's the difference?

Arguably there is none. At least not in the short run.

But what about the sense of the Harvard community? One of the reasons some find this place big and impersonal is that we don't have that common bond with other students on the basis of a universally shared academic or social experience.

Harvard is big and impersonal. It is cold and deathly and anonymous outside a lot of the time. But is this a reason or just an excuse and a symptom of something bigger?

A friend of mine suggested to me that everyone at Harvard is insecure in some fashion, and this is just how we show it. Everyone here wants to belong to something without the risk of being rejected.

Because we don't belong to a larger community ,we base our social lives on exclusionary social clubs and extracurriculars. Despite our rhetoric about openness and acceptance, few can honestly deny the 'cult' of The Crimson--the mystique that makes it just as intangible, incomprehensible and inaccessible to many Harvard students as any final club.

In the end, this need to exclude in order to feel a sense of belonging is somehow fitting at this school. For after all, can there be any institution more exclusive than Harvard University?

This need for elitism and exclusivity starts a cycle of inward focus and exclusive association that limits our exposure it Harvard's diversity of peoples and ideas, and stunts our Harvard experience in general. Frankly, I'd prefer to think that it is just the weather.

Either way, I'll be one of those fools recklessly doling out hellos come spring. Don't leave me out in the cold.

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