One of the most fascinating things about this place is the level of ignorance displayed by my peers and me on a daily basis. No, I’m not referring to a lack of knowledge on a particular political or environmental issue. Rather, the lengths to which we go to ignore each other are extraordinary, and yet, it’s probably one of the few issues that is never candidly acknowledged or discussed.
It’s a given that everyone can’t get along with everyone else, partly because we as students arrived here through competition and much of our careers here — and beyond — thrive on that very quality. Taking that into account, there also exists a strong culture, if one could call it that, of completely ignoring people that you know, people with whom, without a shadow of a doubt, you have met, conversed with and laid down some foundation for a future relationship.
All too often, I’ll encounter someone with whom I’ve taken a freshman seminar, a dry lecture course with an even dryer precept or a hands-on, interactive lab. My natural response, upon seeing these individuals, is to want to say, “Hey, do you remember me? I know you know me!” Yet these words never come; I make eye contact with the individual, and they either abruptly turn their head, pull out the all-consuming cell phone or return my look with an empty stare, as if to ask, “Do I know you?”
Of course, I could take it personally, either thinking that something’s wrong with me, or that my memory is too sharp for its own good. In my mind, however, I’ve already mastered the technique of ignoring the person I’d rather not acknowledge. I know all about the head-down method, appearing so lost in my thoughts that, whoops, I didn’t even see you walking by — my bad. If one has the prop of a cell phone or iPod, it makes the scene all the more believable. These methods take a bit of foresight, if you will, because the avoider must be able to spot someone far enough away that he can pretend, once they’ve closed in, that he never saw them at all.
Given how often I use these techniques, I imagine that many others use them with the same ease. Clearly, that doesn’t justify me doing it. When I’m on the receiving end of being ignored, I find myself extremely annoyed; nine times out of 10, the avoidance is deliberate, not accidental.
What is it that makes ignoring the people we know so easy to do? I don’t mean easy in the sense of pulling it off or in the sense that we can pull it off unbeknownst to the recipient of our actions. Rather, we seem to be comfortable with, and at times relieved by, the fact that we don’t have to acknowledge every single person we know, no matter how agreeable his or her personality may be. What do we accomplish or gain by ignoring our peers?
My theory, since I’m just as guilty of this as everyone else here, is that we want to be accountable to as few people as possible. We have enough burdens as it is, many of which come in the form of problem sets, lab reports, BlackBoard posts or independent work. We also have our friends, to whom we owe some duty or responsibility. The added obligation of acknowledging every single person we know would probably drive us over the edge.
Yet, much of the guilt we feel from ignoring our peers lies in knowing that we are responsible, to some degree, for these people. By shirking that responsibility, we burn the bridges that we could start to build by simply initiating conversation, sending that friend request or giving the head nod, long before the bridges are even complete. As my senior year dawns closer on the horizon, I also sense that the world beyond Princeton is much more cutthroat than the one here. Two years from now, many of my classmates will even have learned to ignore their closest friends from Princeton.
Does that reality justify the avoidance we practice here? Perhaps it sometimes does, yet it will never be enough to overcome those momentary flashes of guilt I feel when I successfully ignore someone for no good reason.
After all, our time here depends largely on the bridges we build. I’d hate to look back and see that for every bridge I completed, there were many more left unfinished.
Keith Griffin is a religion major from Philadelphia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.