Drawing of turtle on its back, with a letter A on its front, and a person looking concerned in the backgroundBy Dan Adler ’14

Volume XXXV, Issue 3, April 19, 2013

We often talk about Amherst’s social divisions. In fact, I write about them with some regularity for this very publication. The questions can be either not so consequential—why is it weird for person X and person Y to be at the same party?—or deeply serious—how do we get past merely nominal diversity?

In any event, talk about the subject for long enough, and I’d bet you’d get around to the idea of what we’ve termed “Amherst awkward.” In a fit of reckless abandon, I might even take a parlay that has you using the verbatim term.

But here’s the picture: I’m walking into Val; a group of my freshman year dormmates is walking out of Val. Ever since freshman year ended, they’ve remained as close as ever; ever since freshman year ended, words haven’t passed between me and them. I suppose that this is vaguely awkward, and it certainly does take place at Amherst.

I’m not sure that we should be so worried about this. “Amherst awkward” is used widely and frequently—even the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct weighed in—but I’m skeptical of the term’s value.

My first line of objection might be simply that the term is trite. Through vast overuse, “Amherst awkward” has become a catchphrase to use when you have nothing interesting to describe a social encounter (in this regard, we might group it with “casual,” though that’s a subject for another article).

Then again, it’s equally trite to suppose that everything popular is wrong. And concerns about originality notwithstanding, I think that there’s a deeper objection to be made. The term isn’t merely irritating—it’s also importantly misleading. From what I can see, there are two senses in which “Amherst awkward” is used. The first is comparative: Amherst is more awkward, the claim goes, than comparable institutions and the “real world.” The second is only phenomenological: Interactions among Amherst students aren’t as fluid as we’d like.

Neither sense of the term seems to map onto the kinds of social problems we should be worried about. Here are just a few instances of how Amherst awkward is treated in The Amherst Student: “Frequently I have conversations with fellow students about ‘Amherst Awkward’…It should be normal to start a conversation with someone whose name you might not yet know”; “Others lamented the so-called ‘Amherst awkward,’ which refers to the common tendency of Amherst students to avoid contact with other students outside of their immediate social circle”; and, from a list of fifteen tips for incoming freshman, “3) Avoid the ‘Amherst awkward.’ After those first two weeks, people tend to retreat to their group of established friends. Try not to.” (N.B.: The last tip on that list is “15) Keep it real.” Draw your own conclusions.)

Is our worry that we say “hello,” less frequently than, say, Middlebury? Is it that we prefer hanging out with our friends to hanging out with people we may not like? Is it that orientation somehow turns us into antisocial recluses? I doubt it. I don’t think there’s anything in the nature of our community that makes it uniquely awkward. In my occasional trips to the real world, social dangers still abound.

Now, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t push back against the phenomena mentioned in The Student. I can’t imagine an Amherst where we’re all friends, but I assume that it would be nice. I also think that people interacting more organically could conceivably lead to a higher number of substantive interactions (I phrase this weakly because it’s also possible that more interactions would dilute the substance of interactions).

I’m worried, though, that our reflexive invocation of Amherst awkward mistakes extroversion for openmindedness. In other words, we might consider drawing a basic quality-quantity distinction: The number of people one greets or even spends some time with isn’t necessarily commensurate to real social engagement.

After all, the problem was never really that we didn’t say “hi” in Val. The problem was that we never had much to say to each other in the first place. To attribute social tensions to awkwardness is cute and convenient, but it doesn’t actually tell us anything about those tensions. Worst of all, it suggests that introversion is a character flaw. That sort of reductive discourse is somewhat worse than no discourse at all, and much worse than poor social skills.

I might be reading too much into the term—it might just be meant to be fun and alliterative. But put aside the “Amherst” part of “Amherst awkward” for a moment. Even if you’re the sort of person who thinks that words are just words, that we oughtn’t overthink them, you might still be struck by the emergence of “awkward” as not just a word, but a bonafide cultural phenomenon. I imagine that most of us used and overused the word even before coming to Amherst, and that most of us are familiar with the awkward turtle. We have much more precise and insightful terminology for describing social interactions, but “awkward” is an excellent verbal crutch.

And given its omnipresence, it is an equally adept social crutch. With its immense cultural currency, “awkward” can now be used to evaluate a breadth of social dynamics. “Amherst awkward” is only an instantiation of that development. And yet, far from enlightening us to instances of social stratification, our use of the term only glosses them over.

But maybe that was precisely the problem in the first place. Much of our social division seems to be born out of oversimplification: It’s easy to dismiss what you can neatly encapsulate. To locate our interactions within an awkward-unawkward paradigm just obscures the distinctions we were hoping to make.