CHANDRA: The subway look

To spot it, all you have to do is look back to any day during a past semester at Yale. You cross an acquaintance — someone you met at a party; someone in your English class; someone you were introduced to at the buttery — but you look through them. Or you look down at the road, or take out your iPhone just as you are about to pass them. Or you just keep your earphones on and pretend to inhabit another world. In these and other ingenuous ways, we find ourselves ignoring acquaintances while standing in a coffee shop line, when doing our laundry, when grabbing a quick lunch at a dining hall. We do not acknowledge one another.

This phenomenon is pervasive at Yale. While it probably exists to some degree in most places, it seems — based on my own observations and conversations with fellow Yalies — to prevail with a particular ubiquity on our campus.

Why do we ignore our acquaintances? Why do we do this to each other? Perhaps we are just busy and preoccupied. Perhaps we do not think we can befriend everyone and so we pick and choose the people we want to engage. Perhaps we don’t particularly care for small talk, and don’t find it worth our while to chat with near strangers.

But I think our pretension has at least one other, more fundamental, cause. When we ignore an acquaintance, we convey a message. We are telling the other person: I don’t need you. We are also telling ourselves: I don’t need this person.

Ignoring an acquaintance is not an expression of anger or resentment. Instead, I think it is an attempt to assert independence. When we ignore someone, we think we are saying: I am confident; I have things figured out; I am secure; I am busy; and, most importantly, I am happy. Acknowledging that person would betray our own weakness and insecurity. We think: Why would I want to say hi to him, even though we’ve barely spoken? Why should I seem lonely and overeager?

Such an interpretation of conversations with acquaintances has various problems. The chief among them is that it gets things completely wrong. Far from insecure and lonely, those who are most forthcoming, who do not constantly wear earphones while traipsing about campus, and who have time even for mere acquaintances are, it seems reasonable to posit, among the more confident and happy Yalies. They want to engage with all that is and all who are around them. I was sharing these thoughts with a friend from New York and she characterized this phenomenon of ignoring people as akin to what she calls the “New York subway look.” Those riding the subway don’t acknowledge one another, don’t look others in the eye, don’t care about them. They mind their own business, burying their heads in the newspaper.

If my friend is right, and if we at Yale resemble the overworked, earphones-wearing, indifferent and cold regulars of the New York subway system, then, well … gosh.

I am not saying that Yalies are not gregarious and do not have friends. We are and we do. But we are exclusivist. We love the friends we have. We go to the gym with them. We debate over meals with them. We carouse with them. But, for too many of us, almost everyone outside our definite circles of friends need not be acknowledged.

As we start a fresh semester, I hope we will be mindful of this strange phenomenon amidst us. Let us aspire, especially as work heats up, to engage our acquaintances; also, let us acknowledge even strangers. Acknowledging these people would reflect confidence, not weakness. Part of what makes Yale special is its emphasis on community, a kind in which each member cares about every other. In such a community, phenomena such as the subway look have no space. Going ahead, let us embrace a collegial instead of a subway look.

Abhimanyu Chandra is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at