Farsighted Tritons: Forgetting to See Those in Front of Us

Sketched eyes by Mika Aubin.

Desperate not to engage our voices with anyone else’s at the bus stop, our eyes stay swimming in our phones. When gazing down our long, curving pathways between massive buildings, headphones are a similar digital armor. As soon as one walks into most rooms on campus, we scan each other like a threat. In fact, we just seem to stare at each other in general.

Let me start off by saying that I stare a lot. I love daydreaming, listening to music, people watching, and doing generic introvert things. I don’t usually find myself compelled to talk to strangers. And I know that at least half of people aren’t as introverted—so I am caught off guard when, at UCSD, I look around to find almost everyone doing the exact same thing: listening to music, walking by themselves, and spacing out just like me. I’ll look up from the bus window or my laptop and find people already staring absentmindedly at something just behind me; on top of this, it seems to take UCSD students a second longer than most to realize and correct what they’re doing. The kind of nervous staring I’m talking about isn’t the kind of thing by which to get personally offended; still, it’s pervasive and uncomfortable.

It’s uncomfortable, not just in thinking about how our staring is rude, but also in terms of what it might mean for us psychologically. We are still adolescents, and some of the time we’re probably just checking each other out. But the difficulty of approaching attractive strangers only scratches the surface of our real problem. At the core of our anxious staring is a problem more challenging: how to balance stress, prestige, growth, and recognition. If UCSD really is ‘socially dead,’ this might be an uncomfortable symptom of a larger, more urgent diagnosis.

It’s not hard to come up with reasons why universal social anxieties seem to be heightened at UCSD. As students, we live in isolated bubbles where headphones, homework, and a tiredness that can come off as unapproachability all come together to construct a common barrier too often preventing connections. It’s likely that our nervous staring is molded by a culture of STEM/academia, in which intelligent but awkward students choose to remain silent rather than risk looking incompetent. Just as with coding, contributing to a lab, or writing a paper, the same stress and judgment carries over to our social performance—and the unfortunate result at UCSD is that shyness can turn into a plain unwillingness to engage.

Incidentally, there was a research study conducted at UCSD four years ago on the psychology of eye contact and why people smile at each other after making eye contact. The study “examined how perceiving oneself to be high or low in status altered how readily people reciprocated others’ smiles.” The article is worth reading because at the foundation of our staring habit is a basic question: Which social behaviors will we choose to mirror, and how is our decision influenced by our identity as UCSD students?

The study reads: “People who considered themselves to be in positions of high power were more likely to smile back at people they perceived to be in positions of low power, and less likely to smile back at those they perceived to be in positions of high power. Meanwhile, people who perceived themselves to be in positions of low power were more likely to smile back at anyone who smiled at them, regardless of that initial smiler’s assumed status.”  

Do we all feel like we are on some kind of hierarchy with each other? When someone draws nearer, do we have an instinctual anxiety about our status being threatened? It makes sense that if you’re the recipient of unwanted glances or smiles; especially within contexts of gender or sexual power imbalance, non-reciprocation will be an important way to halt unwelcome interactions.

But I think the biggest reason we don’t engage beyond the level of awkward staring is because we might have, as my friend once worded it, “a shared feeling of individual superiority that stops us from interacting.” What is sad about this, if it’s true, is that it could be so easily checked by connecting with others—by realizing how incredibly normal we all are once we hear our own thoughts in someone else’s words. In my own case, maybe the hardest part of being a college student requires me to honestly answer this question: Does a lack of visible social skills in those around me equate to a lack of real thoughts, intelligence, or feeling? Or, is it possible my peers are only a few words away from revealing that they too wish all of us could ease up, smile, and approach each other—that they’re aware of the same numerous pressures fixing us into the Blank Stare?

I’m not any less “guilty” of this than anyone else. I haven’t figured out yet how to transcend many of these barriers I’ve been talking about. But I do know that simple, genuine acts with other people can go a long way—like smiles, compliments, sharing a laugh with a stranger. From experience, I would recommend sticking with a buddy you already have when on campus, which tends to make reaching out less threatening. I don’t think our staring off into space and scanning for threats to our status—social, academic, or other—is entirely our fault. Research and brainstorming can provide plenty of reasons to blame our environment, our stress, and our biology for this UCSD habit. But once we agree that this is real and unpleasant, we become somewhat responsible for the way we add to our campus culture. Sometime soon, I hope we learn to not just look at, but recognize ourselves in the 36,000 other students around us.

Nathaniel Imel is an Assistant Opinion Editor for The Triton.

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