People’s Fears of One Another / College Acquaintances

I’ve made a boatload of acquaintances throughout this first semester in college. I’ve also learned the

A shot of my ENC1101 class, bright and early at 9am!

I had the privilege of going to the Everglades this semester
with a group of Biology and Natural Science students.
It was a fantastic and confidence-instilling experience
that was made better by the people I went with. 

Right after the Swamp Walk, it was time to
have lunch at the Grove, of course!
Two colleagues of mine engaging in serious discussion.

I also had the opportunity of attending a tour of Coconut Grove
hosted by (unbeknownst to me) famed historian, Dr. Paul
George (who was also my history teacher for the fall semester).
Here’s a shot featuring me and some of my pals during the tour!

I’d call this a “transit picture”, just because it describes
the day-to-day atmosphere of the Honors Lounge so well
(the Honors Lounge is a computer lab, conference room and
sitting area reserved for us Honors College students). 

Another one of my classmates as we slouch around
waiting for our professor to arrive.

On one of the last days of the semester, I was invited to a
lunch in Downtown with some of my colleagues!
Being the bohemian teenagers we are, we took the Metromover
(Downtown Miam’s light rail system) to our destination.

 value of the word “acquaintances”, particularly when it’s contrasted with the word “friends”. While I became friendly with the idea of separating the two terms as far back as when I left high school and felt the wrath of falling out of touch with many people I’d considered to be pals, I’ve really come to terms with it now that a semester of college has transpired and now that I’ve gotten the chance to engage in social interactions which have made the distinction undeniable.

From a logical perspective, people strike friendships based on common interests. Two people that like or do the same things are more likely to strike up a relationship than two people who don’t. The same perspective typically applies to people bound by a common neighborhood or frequently visited location, such as a church or a classroom.

While such a perspective is correct, it fails to account for the fact that such commonalities do not lead to “friendships” but rather to “acquaintanceships”, if you will. Just because I am taking the same class as someone else, or the same bus route as someone else; just because I am sitting at the same table as someone else, or reading the same textbook as someone else does not mean that I am entitled to a long-standing friendship with that person. While it may become easier for me to break the ice with that person given our outstanding commonality, it will not be any less difficult to take the relationship farther.

I feel as though a critic of such a train of thought would immediately call the perspective pessimistic. They’d likely argue that commonalities like the ones described are indeed the way to friendships; that exploiting the activities or circumstances that bring one together with others is precisely the best way to make relationships that will “last a lifetime” (placed in quotes because of the airy, feel-good nature of that phrase).

But there’s a caveat to such an attitude that bears discussion more often than not, and that caveat has been immortalized in modern psychology by something called “the Dunbar number”. In the early 90s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships, a figure above which rules commanding the relationships (and making it less than stable) must be set if stability is to be retained. Dunbar explains that a stable social relationship is different from situations like knowing who someone is but not having active social contact with them (in which case the number might be much higher because the “relationship” becomes just an element of accumulated knowledge and would become dependent on long-term memory size).

In an “Age of Information” where “everything is on the Internet” (according to rapper Lil B), social networks like Facebook who tug at people’s notions of social approval and fame by way of constantly suggesting friends and always reminding you to give birthday gifts to people have also created a difficult set of expectations for people who take pride in their social relationships, like me.

For one, it creates the sense that each and every acquaintance one makes is a friendship waiting to bloom. In other words, every person with whom there is a commonality is a person with whom there must also be a serious attempt made to exact a serious and sustainable relationship. While it sounds like an agenda that could only do more good than bad, it’s actually not, especially when exacerbated by the fact that a person like me is in a situation where meeting new people on a regular basis is the norm. As a college student, I’ve found myself entrenched in tens of different clubs and meetings and rooms with different people more often than not, and the thought of having a responsibility unto myself to try to be “friends” and not simply “acquaintances” with as many of them as possible genuinely tires me out.

Part of the reason why that’s the case is because not everyone takes as much pride in their social relationships as I think I do. There are people – and this has been a truth that’s been difficult to grasp – that do not even think about social expectations like the one I’m having trouble filling, be they a part of the “Age of Information” or not. There are people who are also in situations where they see new faces more often than not, but do not find themselves compelled to strike a relationship with them that goes farther than a “Hello”. In some cases, people even have trouble mustering up the courage or the respect to greet others!

I could analogize my dilemma to a naïve boy who goes out of his way to do something, deluded in his belief that someone will care if he accomplishes it. I see a picture, for instance, of a schoolboy aligning all the chairs in the lunchroom because the teacher told one malfeasant punk to scoot his chair under the table. The boy will have fomented an immutable resolve to ensure the chairs are in order, only to meet a half-hearted “Good job, Johnny!” exclamation from his teacher, who wouldn’t dare pass up the opportunity to reward Johnny for work that is otherwise unnecessary and dumb.

I’ve felt like this on occasions where I lent unnecessary weight to my social relationships … and because of it, I’ve found myself saying “Hello” and not being greeted back on more occasions than I’d care to account for. I’ve found myself honoring commitments when the other person wasn’t really planning on doing so. I’ve found myself sending text messages asking about the other person’s doings and whereabouts, in vain. And though I would typically blame an errant world for all this, I now understand what’s going on.

The tiredness I sometimes feel when my own personality compels me to be a part of as many peoples’ lives as possible is likely the one that other, more rationally-thinking people are righteously trying to avoid. Just like the automobiles of the 21st century, they’re doing their best to be efficient human beings, and as a part of that envelope they’ve decided to very carefully manage their social relationships. They’ve decided to very carefully pick and choose who to add to their growing Dunbar number.

Yet one unsettling thought remains. I don’t think that people make decisions to be so discriminant based solely on concerns of mental efficiency. I think the decisions can also be attributed to fear. Fear of developing friendships with others that – as a result of constantly changing living and working and studying arrangements – might fall by the wayside and end up hurting them in the long-run because of it. I’m not alone in this train of thought – at least two people that I’ve met (initially “acquaintances” but currently on an upward trend) have commented on the same thing.

Truth be told, that’s a pretty good thing to do. It makes me think, hey, I’m only nineteen; if I try to add a lot of people now, I’ll be out of room before I even start my professional career! Whether avoiding heartbreak or being as efficient as a Prius is the motivation, this agenda of managing your number appropriately isn’t so bad. It just takes someone like me some getting used to.

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