Engaging John Doe

You know it’s coming before it even happens. About 15 feet out, you see him: John, an acquaintance from Econ 51, walks toward you, threatening another blasé social interaction. Although the two of you chat regularly in Carnegie, you are not sure if this “friendship” will transfer beyond the classroom. Five feet. John whips out his phone, effectively answering your question. You save face, deciding to admire a tree in the distance. Tomorrow, you’ll see John in class and chatter as per usual.

Let’s be real. We all have those “friendships” that are restricted to specific domains: the drunk-party friend, the Facebook-friend friend, the friend-of-a-friend friend, the classroom friend. There is no real explanation for why these relationships should be confined to one dimension, other than out of fear of awkwardness, which doesn’t really make sense seeing as most of these interactions are in fact painfully awkward. Think about it. How many times a day do you walk past someone and avoid acknowledging them simply to avoid rejection? We all do it, we all know we do it, and yet we all continue to do it.

It’s not necessarily irrational. No one wants to be the one to put himself out there and go too far. No one wants to be the one to overstep the boundary of social norms and fall flat on his face. But the only reason this happens is because everyone expects it to. Person A doesn’t acknowledge Person B for fear that Person B won’t return the favor, but the only reason Person B wouldn’t acknowledge Person A is because Person B is thinking the exact same thing.

This phenomenon has been so deeply rooted in our culture that it has developed an entire arsenal of nuances. You are not allowed to remember or care about party interactions once the sun rises. You are not allowed to know anything that you discovered through Facebook rather than in person. You are not allowed to acknowledge the friend of a friend beyond the eyebrow-raise-and-smile. And you are not allowed to say “Hi” to John when you see him walking by. Though some of these examples may be more or less realistic than others, the fact of the matter is that social authenticity is inhibited by countless silly nuances.

But imagine if that weren’t the case. Imagine if, instead of allowing social norms to govern our actions, we could build relationships upon authenticity. No longer restricted by silly rules, we could express ourselves honestly and enjoy genuine relationships, even with acquaintances.

So we offer you a personal challenge: this week, reconsider the constraining social milieu and break those constraints. Say “What’s up” to your John; strike up a conversation with a friend-of-a-friend; overall, step outside the comfort zone enforced by norms. And hey, if it goes well, keep going.

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