The unsocial experiment
We don’t talk on the elevator. We anonymously spew vitriol on cyberspace. And when we see that kid from University Writing coming down Broadway, we duck into the nearest shop.
But we’re really not that terrible, Columbia.
The Social Experiment is cutesy and fun and whatever, and that’s fantastic. (And Harvard “welcomes” it, so that’s that, isn’t it?) But the premise that we’re gauche or somehow socially deficient just because we don’t talk to each other is false. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being taciturn.
Sure, it’s important to say hi to the person you ride the elevator with every morning, but is it really necessary to strike up a lively, animated conversation with him just because you happen to be in the same steel box? I don’t think so.
We live in a society that blurs the boundary between private and public. The nature of dormitory life is that your business is everybody’s business. Things that were ordinarily “private” until college—things like brushing your teeth or doing laundry or coming out of the shower—suddenly become communal activities.
But our arrival at college doesn’t mean that all sense of “inside” and “outside” should go right out the window altogether. Not everyone is suddenly my newest BFF. Some people are acquaintances, and they should remain just that: acquaintances. We as humans don’t interact with everyone with the same degree of familiarity.
That doesn’t mean we should be cold and rude. Smiling and saying hello and goodbye to people you recognize on the elevator are just basic decency. And acknowledging the existence of people you know when you see them on College Walk is second-grade manners.
But sometimes, a smile and a simple “hello” are enough—in fact, they’re preferable to a full conversation. They show you care, that you’re glad to see someone. And they show that you’re not going to engage in pointless small talk just to feign friendliness.
What ultimately matters at Columbia, then, and the aspect of our culture that needs to be examined, is whether we genuinely respect and appreciate our neighbors and classmates. That’s connected to—but not the same thing as—whether we talk to each other. If we do respect each other, and we don’t verbalize it 24/7, that’s fine. If we don’t respect each other, though, but we go out of our way to talk on the elevator, pretending hypocritically that we do care—and then we trash-talk each other once we get off the elevator—what good does that do?
So if people feel moved to speak to each other out of a sense of genuine camaraderie, all power to them. But talking for the sake of talking does nothing for the community.
A reticent, reserved disposition should not necessarily indicate hostility or unfriendliness. In fact, it might even be a refreshing change in a culture where everyone is in everyone’s face all the time.