March 7, 2021

BETTEZ | The Death of the Acquaintance

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An acquaintance was once someone who you could run into as you rush through Ho Plaza on your way to class and chat, or attempt to catch up with over the roar of a frat party’s Spotify playlist. Maybe they were even a friend of a friend, or an ally when you frantically needed help on your problem set the night it’s due. Without these relatively inconsequential interactions, Cornell’s campus is no longer a community of interconnections, but a set of isolated bubbles. An unfortunate, but not unexpected consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic lasting as long as it has is the death of an entire class of friends.

The loss of the acquaintance is just another symptom of the loss of the campus space and sense of community we’ve experienced over the last year. While study spaces remain open and some classes proceed with hybrid instruction, students who choose to return to Ithaca see a campus that’s just a shell of its previous vibrance. Under the threat of disease and strict regulations, the far fewer students who still frequent campus are solemn and somber, hunched over their work. Places that used to have a constant hum of chatter, like Duffield or the second floor of Mann Library, are now nearly silent. 

A part of this loss is from the disconnect of emotion from other students you see around campus. While you used to be able to just smile at an acquaintance, masks make it physically impossible Another factor is not being able to recognize people easily — the only way I can identify somebody now is by squinting at their face for an uncomfortably long time, which I generally try to avoid. How can you greet someone you can’t even recognize when they walk past you?

Without being able to sit within six feet of classmates, or likely even be in the same room as them during class, it’s nearly impossible to find new study partners. If I find myself in a class without friends, I can usually at least try to befriend someone sitting near me. But for the past two semesters, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to figuring out a class alone if I don’t know anyone going in — an issue assuredly worse for first years who entered college alone.

On one hand, the introvert in me is almost relieved not to have to risk even the slightest bit of awkwardness in uncharted social waters. Prior to lockdown, I felt a constant pressure to know everyone, do everything, and have more friends than I could feasibly keep track of. Keeping only to close friends has given me a surprising amount of comfort. Instead of feeling guilty for not living my college experience to its fullest on a Friday night without plans, I can relish a quiet night of cleaning my apartment and watching whatever television I want. 

But it comes at the cost of knowing that as a second semester senior, there are likely no more connections and friendships for me to make here at Cornell. I’m here to take my classes, play Pictionary with my friends on a Friday night and maybe meet a few lab partners along the way. 

Because at the end of the day, we’re worse off for our inability to make new connections. All friendships begin as strangers — I wonder who I could’ve begun a lifelong friendship with if quarantine had never happened. And while it’s true I probably could’ve tried harder to maintain connections, it’s brutally difficult to build something from almost nothing online. College is about shared experiences — the same city, similar classes and some mediocre dining food around a table in RPCC. But these days, we have little left to share other than the same Zoom screen. 

Although it might be too late for me, I fervently hope that the next generation of Cornellians is able to find their acquaintances, for all the awkward silences in conversations and uncomfortable wondering if you’re close enough to stop and chat. It’s there that we find the most meaningful friendships, unique perspectives and unexpectedly fun times.

Michaela Bettez is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at [email protected]. Bet on It runs every other Monday this semester.