I am not a fan of socially awkward situations. I turn away from people breaking up in public to avoid any semblance of confrontation. Telling a student government candidate I don’t want to vote for them on the Diag makes my skin crawl. Waving at somebody that I had class with freshman year only to have them not remember me is my real-life manifestation of hell.

One of the first things I learned when I arrived at the University of Michigan was that headphones block out most of these socially awkward situations. Headphones, as a social signaling device, tell passing individuals that I don’t want to talk to them (and couldn’t hear them if they tried to ignore this sign). So far, the efficacy of this method is pretty solid; it is rare for somebody to come up to me in public while I’m blaring Justin Bieber’s new single through my massive SOL Republic headphones. Headphone use in public, it seems, is one of the most impactful habits I have developed in my time at the University.

Back in high school, when I didn’t have the freedom to use my phone or other devices in school, I used to talk to pretty much anybody I walked past. I prided myself on knowing almost all of my peers by name, though my school’s relatively miniscule population helped. This trend seemed to be indicative of the social situation put forth by the school environment: Nobody had phones or headphones, so our social interaction was more public and interconnected.

As a result of my social fluidity, my distaste for socially awkward situations seemed to mellow. Like how lifting weights makes a person stronger, engaging with people made me less socially apprehensive. Over time, I developed a social strength that made me feel confident, happy and, most importantly, engaged with the world around me. This derivation of the social learning theory allowed me to grow with my everyday social interactions.

Though the social dynamics of a huge public institution like the University — and, consequently, a bustling Midwestern city like Ann Arbor — are notably different than those of my rural high school, translating my high school sociability doesn’t seem impossible to me.

Over the past few months, I have made a concerted effort to not wear headphones while walking to class all the time. Though I don’t talk to every person I pass, I feel that my social anxiety has lessened with each passing awkward-esque interaction. Talking to solicitors while waiting for a crosswalk to open doesn’t make me want to sprint in the opposite direction. I can make eye contact with a fellow human being without wanting to curl up in a ball and hide me forever. In essence, I am regaining the strength I once had in high school.

There are still days when I wear headphones in public. Sometimes I just need to get hyped up for an exam (that I know, deep down, I’m doomed to fail). Other times, it is nice to just have a soundtrack for a beautiful Michigan spring afternoon. Finally, there are just some days when I don’t want to talk to anybody while walking to my 8 a.m. discussion section. There is nothing wrong with these desires and my intent is not to demonize headphones, cellphones or any individual that displays social myopia.

However, these instances cannot overtake our lives. With the advent of new technologies like the Internet, smartphones and other devices, some have envisioned future societies that simply do not interact with one another in public. The 2013 movie “Her” featured a man falling in love with the computer that lived in his wireless earbud. “WALL-E,” the futuristic animated movie, showed the world as a mass of screen-connected amorphous blobs that didn’t look at one another, let alone talk to one another. These are worse-case scenarios facilitated by new technologies.

With the mass introduction of “Her”-esque Bragi Dash earbuds that rest wirelessly in our ear canals (with similar moves by companies like Apple), it is easy to get cynical. However, these new technologies do nothing to force people into sound bubbles. Nothing about new headphones, or even our existing corded earbuds, force us into avoiding social interaction.

It is human nature to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. New technologies do facilitate our ability to focus on things that make us feel comfortable. But, as any college professor can tell you, comfortable isn’t always the best state of being, nor one that will be infinitely achievable.

We will not be able to ignore breakups in public when we are involved, so maybe we should learn how to deal with them when we’re not involved. It’s inevitable that we will have to greet somebody that maybe doesn’t remember our names, so maybe we should practice the awkward task sooner rather than later. By practicing with the trials of everyday public social interaction, we can better prepare ourselves for the instances in which we care to interact, as even these voluntary situations can be awkward.

It is human nature for awkward situations to arise. But maybe instead of running away from these situations or enclosing ourselves in our headphones, we should just be awkward sometimes. We just might learn how to be less awkward in the future.

Elliott Rains can be reached at erains@umich.edu.


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