“Sorry. I don’t like eye contact. It freaks me out.”
“That’s fine. I don’t like shaking hands with people.”
This exchange lasted approximately five seconds and probably appeared insignificant to any outside observer. But this moment contained unspoken importance to both a mentee and a mentor who struggle independently with different forms of anxiety.
The two of us sat at a table in the middle of the room and chatted about whatever nonsense we decided to chat about that day. Though she never once avoided my questions or withdrew from the conversation, she kept staring at the empty space across the table. I did not ask her why she would not look at me, but she felt the need to acknowledge it.
But this simple statement of fact was something she felt the need to apologize for. And it made me wonder how many times she has had to apologize for not making eye contact with someone—which made me think about how many times I have had to shake hands with someone I did not want to shake hands with.
We live in a world that often forces these kinds of interactions on people who have social anxiety without presenting a clear alternative. She could continue to avoid eye contact, but they will often interpret this as rudeness or disinterest; I could continue to wave at people when I meet them, but they will still attempt to initiate a handshake. Social anxiety, therefore, frequently remains hidden and reveals itself only in these private conversations when someone builds up enough courage to recognize and to celebrate the quirks others would deem as inconveniences.
So an eighth-grade girl and a 21-year-old college student somehow found comfort in a room crowded with overwhelming activity. They somehow found a secret similarity that broke down more boundaries than anxiety could build. Even though no eye contact was made and no hands were shaken, a bond was formed that told the other this was a safe space where wandering minds and anxious spirits could find refuge.
Miren Mohrenweiser is a senior History, English, and French triple-major.