Why are we afraid of each other?

At the six-person tables in the library, we always choose a corner chair, then the next person to sit down goes to the chair at the farthest corner from us.

Instead of sitting with a stranger when all the tables in Whispers are occupied, we eat on the floor or standing up. When someone reaches for his bag that is touching ours, we move our bag further away, preferably to the opposite side of our body.

If we go to the bathroom and there are more than two sinks and someone is already washing his or her hands, we choose the furthest possible sink. If we happen, by some unfortunate fate, to sit in close proximity and touch a stranger’s arm or leg, we both recoil the offending parts and apologize.

More particular: On the Metro-North commuter train from Grand Central to Connecticut, each car is divided into a row of two seats, an aisle, and a row of three seats. The first person to sit in the two-seat row puts their bag in the sole empty seat. The first person to sit in the three-person row puts their bag next to them, and the next person sits in the aisle seat; i.e., he or she leaves one cushion-space between the two. This is more interesting because the aisle seat has a very low backrest whereas the other four have full ones extending to the shoulders. In other words, the persons sitting on the aisle chooses to be more uncomfortable instead of sitting next to a stranger.

Why are we afraid of each other?

I do not know why Americans — and especially Washington University students — stridently avoid each other. Speaking in generalities, we are clean, safe, mild-mannered and nice — an antiseptic ethnicity — and this is even truer on campus. Why then do we, as students and socialized individuals, shy away from contact with strangers, especially peers?

Most Americans, and perhaps other nationalities, love their bubbles. The automobile allowed us to first glide between two points while enjoying contact only with those permitted in our cocoon. The cell phone then made it possible to walk through a space while being mentally removed from it; people now fake cell calls to avoid a particular person or situation. Finally, personal media players — iPods and other devices that play more than just music — have permitted us to sit in a space but audibly and visually remove ourselves from it. Maybe we have become habituated to the personal bubbles that technology enables and which we allow only select individuals to invade.

The size of the average American home has also increased by roughly 40 percent, to 2,200 square feet, since the end of World War II. This entails even more private space in the familial domain, which is where we presume one establishes the most intimate connections. If everyone has their own bedroom and bathroom, perhaps we have tried to project the space of our private domains into our public world. One would think, though, that the density of college dorms counteracts the effects of spaciousness with which we grew up.

Nightly local news (the most alarming domain of the media landscape) may also have a role. The uplifting story is shoved behind the weather report — and who actually continues to watch once tomorrow’s humidity is known? — both of which the lead stories about rape, murder, theft and fires overshadow. (They say bad news sells, but maybe that is because no one has tried selling the uplifting kind.) Perhaps this has inculcated Americans with the belief that every stranger will rape us, steal our belongings, murder our children and then burn down our house. Even that nice young boy studying for the Introduction to Human Evolution test.

Still, why are we so afraid of each other?

By Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld The Student Life Washington University (U-WIRE)