Column | Feb. 11

Zombies

“It occurred to me why they call it eye contact.”

Hazel, the protagonist of John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars, aptly notes that more than one of our five senses is at play when two pairs of eyes meet. Through eye contact, we not only connect visually, but we also touch — figuratively, perhaps, but also in the most physical, literal sense of the word.

It is fitting, then, that deliberate eye contact is often touted as an effective tool of communication and speech. It is commonly known that eye contact conveys confidence and sincerity. We connect not only through verbal communication, but also through physical unity. And Princeton students are great at utilizing this tool to exude confidence and demonstrate active participation in precepts, during presentations and even in large lectures.

There is, however, a different kind of eye contact, a kind that is not consciously initiated but rather a natural consequence of sharing an environment with other people. Outside of the classroom, we view this kind of eye contact as an undesirable accident we instinctively seek to rectify. We flit our gaze somewhere else. Even with people we know, eye contact of this form seems uncomfortable. I can’t count the number of times I’ve unintentionally made eye contact with a fellow classmate in precept, only to hastily glance away when I notice his gaze returning my own. This has happened in pathways, in Frist Campus Center, in the dining halls, in exam rooms for other courses and even in the hallway of my dorm, which I share with members of my advisee group.

This may say something about the nature of student life at an academic institution like Princeton. The awkwardness of eye contact is universal. Yet, as Lea Trusty wrote in her column last April, there is something uniquely distancing about the avoidance of eye contact here at Princeton. As she says, we are incredibly focused on the endless sources of stress that abound for any college student: academics, social life and our plans for the future. Students seem distant because they’re closed in, too focused on their future to invest in the now. We contribute to this lonely distance by averting our eyes rather than looking up as we go about our day.

However, I believe the discomfort we associate with eye contact speaks to a broader phenomenon that goes beyond the idiosyncrasies of Princeton life. It’s not just that students here are too caught up in themselves to engage with others around them: It is that they are afraid to. Modern society has stigmatized curiosity — the kind that leads an unrestrained child to stare unabashedly at whomever or whatever he finds interesting — in the name of preserving personal space and political correctness. We have become jaded; it is no longer friendly, but instead creepy, to lock eyes with someone you don’t know or don’t know well. So, we have resorted to constantly looking away, lest we accidentally offend. Eye contact, a natural and inevitable part of making our way around campus, now carries the risk of accidentally upsetting someone or coming across as suspicious or  judgmental. Keeping our heads down is a way of saving face.

Despite common beliefs that attempt to explain this trend, I think Princetonians are less self-oriented than they are often portrayed to be. We are invested in our relationships with those immediately around us. Many of us care greatly about how we present ourselves and where we stand within the community. And in a campus where competition and hierarchy seem to stretch into every aspect of life, we’re trained to act as though we feel integrated and at ease with ourselves, even when we are not, because others seem to be doing the same. It may very well be the case that students appear too engrossed in their own lives because that’s exactly how they want to appear.

We don’t look away because we have more important things to think about than the familiar faces we encounter. We look away because we’re afraid others will do so first. We fear not being acknowledged reciprocally or not being  memorable enough during a brief encounter. We don’t want to be perceived as creepy or overly interested.

So, instead of looking up and acknowledging our peers, we gaze into the distance like zombies with a singular focus, secretly fearful.

Jiyoon Kim is a freshman from Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at ljkim@princeton.edu.

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