I see him walking toward me on the other side of the sidewalk. My heart beats faster but my mind goes blank. I flush, feeling warm, as I fumble around my coat pocket for my phone. Despite the black screen, my eyes are glued to it. I know exactly when he passes though I refuse to look up. I exhale once I’m in the clear, but the aura of awkwardness lingers. Hoping he didn’t see me, I remember that the last time we saw each other we were hooking up at a party. Feeling slightly uncomfortable on my walk to the library, I wonder at the encounter. Why did I ignore him instinctually? Would he have done the same to me if given the chance? What did it mean? A habit across campus, present on social media, and discussed in collegiate publications, the BC Look Away has become a cultural norm.
According to evolutionary history, humans have a fundamental need to belong. Boston College students prove this by partaking in the same social trends as their peers, including the BC Look Away. It usually occurs when one person wants the convenience of eliminating the possibility of interacting with someone, either to avoid a potentially awkward situation, or to purposefully minimize embarrassment. My friend Danni, a BC freshman, says, “It’s easier to pretend to look at your phone than it is to have that moment of panic about what to say, how to say it, and what that relationship is.” As a community, we have become used to avoiding situations that could be emotionally challenging. We focus on ourselves rather than considering the effects of ignoring someone else, which are psychologically significant. In addition, we lose the opportunity to build new relationships, contradicting Boston College’s idea of a cohesive community. Founded on the idea of men and women for others, our school promotes an environment where people can become their best selves. Pretending to look at my phone to avoid someone clashes with my desire to be a wholesome member of BC’s community. The BC Look away reveals the college students’ discrepancy between morally ideal and everyday behaviors.
When crossing paths with the guy from the party, I reflexively followed the trend and ignored him completely. Similarly, in cases where it is unclear if the other person wants to communicate, Danni says, “I won’t go out of the way to make it awkward..” In these situations, Danni and I both assume that the other person does not want to communicate. Then, believing the other person will give us the BC Look Away, we preemptively give it to him instead. Dr. Jessica J. Cameron, in her study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, finds that people’s expectations affect their behavior in a way that ultimately fulfills them. Specifically, individuals with low self-esteem anticipate less acceptance from new interaction partners. This belief initiates self-protection by decreasing pro-social behaviors (Cameron, et al). In this way, the BC Look Away is a positive feedback loop. When people project negative self-evaluations on others, they initiate fewer relationships. Being more likely to give the BC Look Away, these people decrease other’s self-confidence, attributing to the trend’s spread. The effect on the collective psyche of BC students is a blow to our self-esteem.
The problem is that initiating relationships could lead to new, fulfilling social bonds, just as easily as it could result in crushing rejection. The BC Look Away prevents either of these options, causing relationships to stay in limbo. According to the American Psychological Association, social rejection stimulates the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula, the same brain regions involved in physical pain (Weir). Can anyone blame us for wanting to avoid that? We are not socially apathetic or unskilled, but self-protective in everyday interactions. John, a teaching assistant at BC, found that most people are pleasantly surprised when he says hi to them instead of giving the BC Look Away. Though he’s received some weird looks from those he catches off guard, he has never been rejected outright. John’s experiences prove that the rejection we fear rarely happens, but we continue to ignore others with the BC Look Away. Even brief and seemingly innocuous incidents can affect emotions, as people tend to take it personally. Director of Social Psychology at Northwestern University Daniel C. Molden says social rejection can increase anger, anxiety, depression, sadness, and reduce intellectual performance (Molden, et al). John says, “Some kids become numb to it, but it’s not a good thing to be used to that type of rejection.” Acting out of fear for our individual wellbeing, we hurt others and encourage them to participate in the trend as well. The disconnect present in our community continues the cycle of the BC Look Away.
Our inability to understand the way we behave towards each other is compounded by the influence of the BC Look Away on developing relationships. Dr. Duane Buhrmester discusses how the growth of interpersonal relationships relies on successful adolescent friendships, in his article “Intimacy of Friendship, Interpersonal Competence, and Adjustment during Preadolescence and Adolescence.” Those who do not develop collaborative and reciprocal friendships have lower self-esteem, are less sociable, more hostile and prone to anxiety and depression. The study also demonstrates that a lack of successful adolescent relationships impairs one’s ability to achieve intimacy later in life (Buhrmester). Nevertheless, I continue to participate in the trend despite knowing the consequences. Why? Danni says, “It’s so much a part of the culture that you know it’s going to happen. Why do I have to be proactive about it? It’s just the state of things.” Even John, who tries his best to never give anyone the Look Away, concludes in cynicism, “It’s never going to go away.” Since we seem to have fully accepted it as part of our cultural identity, it may be too much to hope that we will ever eradicate the BC Look Away.
Those of us who give the Look Away to others seem to forget that we receive it for similar reasons—a common one being embarrassment. As John, Danni, and I have experienced, many BC Look Aways occur between people who have met at a party and were romantically involved. Seeing that person in a normal setting during the day can come as an affront to the identity we want to present. Brent Dean Robbins, Ph.D. proposes a model of embarrassment as “an emotional experience: the revelation of something hidden that one prefers to remain hidden” (Robbins, et al). Being inebriated and lustful is an unwanted exposure of imperfection. When seeing a person who reminds us of an embarrassing event, we avoid them via the BC Look Away. Hooking up during a night out is a glamorized part of college, yet we are embarrassed to face those people outside of a party setting. The BC Look Away exposes disconnect not only within our community, but also within individuals, between our personal identities.
Understanding why and how we behave toward one another is important to interact effectively as a society. Ignoring the consequences will only exacerbate them. Dr. Cameron’s study indicates that highlighting other people’s social anxiety to those with low self-esteem is an effective tool to improve confidence and reduce self-protective social behaviors (Cameron, et al). John’s reaction to receiving the BC Look Away is often to laugh because he understands why they are doing it. By thinking critically about this trend, we will be able to better relate to each other. If we recognize that the other person is giving us the BC Look Away out of fear or embarrassment, then we are less likely to feel the pain of rejection. Then, even if we do not end the BC Look Away, our community will be better equipped to become our best selves at Boston College.
While addressing the psychological effects may begin to repair the damage within the community, the individual conflicts persist. How are we to become our best selves with opposing identities? There is the version of myself that goes to parties—something that is expected of a college student—but is unprofessional. There is also the “me” that does service and treats everyone with respect as I consciously try to be moral. Which identity I assume depends on how I want to be perceived. Between classes, I present the moral identity to embody the Jesuit ideals that BC encourages, suppressing the unwanted versions by ignoring someone who threatens that image. Would an honest, holistic person give someone the BC Look Away? Ignoring these conflicting truths about who we are causes our projected versions to become pretenses. Recognizing the versions, though difficult, addresses the problematic internal conflict of character. We do not need to be all identities at every moment, but must have a firm understanding of who we are as individuals. The best self is the version that allows these identities to intersect harmoniously, improving individual and communal conditions at Boston College.
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