Breaking the Ice, With That Islamic Studies Guy
I would like to introduce to you That Islamic Studies Guy – a PhD student at the Institute of Islamic Studies. I’ve been seeing him around for the past year, primarily in, you guessed it, the Islamic Studies library. Despite running into one another often, our interactions have been minimal and awkward. Missed “Hello’s,” nods of acknowledgment, quick curious glances, and bright smiles have come to signify our relations. A brief, “Do you mind watching my stuff for a minute?” at the Second Cup at Milton and Parc still remains the pinnacle of our conversation.
It’s probably odd that I’m choosing to write about this guy, perhaps even slightly creepy. But I do believe that our interactions are microcosmic of a greater trend at McGill, and an even greater tendency in our society: to dither in initiating conversations; to flee cordial encounters; or to shit our pants at the thought of rejection. We live in a society that has come to embrace the importance of the public and make it an integral part of identity. Yet in the process, we have become extremely private individuals.
From the Internet to iPod headphones, each new addition to our public persona is making us increasingly isolated in our social interactions. The public can be experienced in private, making the old idea of the public irrelevant. I won’t talk to you in person, but I’ll comment on your Facebook note, your status, and that picture of your mom in drag. I’ll sit on a bus for 40 minutes, alone, and instead of talking to the person next to me, I’ll reach for my cell phone and sift through my phonebook until I find someone worth wasting the remaining 39 minutes with. When I see a girl with toilet paper hanging out of her pants, instead of telling her, I’ll think about how embarrassing it’s going to be for her when she walks into Cybertheque.
Why are we so afraid of rejection? Being rejected from Law School is a legitimate concern – one I prepare myself for on an hourly basis – but rejection from a stranger or casual acquaintance? There seems to be a growing emphasis on basing our worth now solely on responses from others. A Harvard rejection is a rejection of my sub-par last minute academic sweat and toil – but rejection from the dude down the hall is a rejection of what? It’s understandable when we run from complete strangers, something for which I blame my parents and elementary school teachers. But does it make sense to ignore someone you see on a daily basis, even when you’ve had three classes with them?
One of the most life-changing-cue-violin moments in my life was when a complete stranger approached me, said a few words of observation, and walked away. She’s most likely dead now, but her words made me re-think my personhood. Recently I’ve been thinking about how I interact in my public, about how private I’ve become amidst being constantly bombarded. No matter how many Fido minutes I add on, or how many people I bump into outside Leacock, I still refrain from embracing the more public aspect of my identity and persona.
The thought of saying hello or initiating conversation with That Islamic Studies Guy or That First Year Political Theory Class Conference Girl is terrifying. Not because of the individuals in and of themselves – but the idea that I’m going to end up making an ass of myself. But then I’m reminded of that elderly woman on the train, ten years ago, who told a young 12-year-old girl, suffering from a bad case of puberty, that past the acne there was beauty.
She had no inhibitions, no fear. She observed, spoke, and walked away without caring about my reaction.
So here I am, attempting to break the ice with That Islamic Studies Guy. Now it’s his turn.
Originally published in the McGill Daily in November 2008.