No new friends: How students are breaking social norms at Radford

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Picture this: it is a Monday afternoon. You have just finished sitting through a morning lecture and decide to head over to the terrace shops in Dalton for lunch. As you sit down by yourself, a fellow student, a complete stranger to you, approaches your table. They sit down, without saying a word. It is likely that you might make awkward eye contact with them or attempt to look away. You pull out your phone and pretend to check your messages.

This scenario would most certainly be awkward for many of us, myself included, as you are left unsure of how to proceed during this social interaction. Last semester, in one of my Sociology courses, several of my classmates and I were able to explore this very situation for ourselves as we broke the social norm of sitting with strangers at lunch time. The T-shops in Dalton are quite heavily populated at meal times, providing the perfect setting to complete this task. To approach this experiment, different members of the group, myself included, would walk around the room and search for various tables to join, whether there were students sitting alone or in groups. We were required to sit at the table we chose for at least one full minute. Overall, we were able to break this norm twenty times over several days during one week.

It was amazing how uncomfortable this made many students feel. Frequently, when sitting with individuals, the student would avoid any conversation, eye contact, or interaction in any way. Quite commonly, as we all fall victim to, cellular devices were used as a social crutch and as a means of avoiding the awkward situation before them. When sitting with groups, students seemed much more compelled to comment on the situation, questioning what we were doing there or making comments about how they felt a trick was being played on them. In one case, my presence at a table even caused two students to completely stop talking with one another. It was as if they were afraid to continue their conversation in front of me, yet were still unwilling to ask me why I had joined them. That leads to a very long and awkward silence.

One observation I have made on this campus is that many students are unwilling to actually interact with one another beyond social media. I am certainly a victim of this as well. We treat strangers like they are completely different from ourselves. Why is this scenario so difficult for us? Granted, it is a stranger that you do not know who is approaching your table uninvited. Yet, it is simply another human being who desires to sit somewhere at lunch time and maybe even make a new acquaintance. Even if they are not choosing to sit down at your table to be social with you, it should not be so challenging to at least make eye contact and say hello. Why must we treat a stranger like they are nonexistent to us?

In the end, what I took away from this experience was to become more open to those that I meet. I certainly need to take my own advice more than most. It is easy to become closed-minded and comfortable with who you know and unwilling to open up to others. But, if someone simply needs a seat in Dalton, we should not shy away from the interaction. Take it as a chance to get to know about someone or ask how their day is going. Stop falling victim to the mindset of “stranger danger” with your fellow classmates.