On an unsuspecting Tuesday afternoon in Annenberg Hall, your writer plunges into the unknown. I remove the over-the-ear headphones practically fused to my skin. I shudder without their warm embrace.
For the first time, I can hear the voice of my university, totally unfiltered. It’s cacophonous, mesmerizing, tantalizingly sonic, and… oddly charming?
I look up and take my surroundings in for the first time. Friends chatter with each other gleefully, and every so often, a table erupts with laughter. Sometimes someone flits from table to table, greeting friends like it’s their first time seeing each other after a long war and not simply after their first two classes of the day.
I realize that I may also have to engage in social interaction. I am absolutely floored — and now that my ears are exposed to the conditions — keenly aware of how I am being perceived. With a pair of headphones onlookers admire: Woah. Look how mysterious and esoteric they are. They definitely know that Tame Impala is actually just one guy. But without them: Sitting alone in Annenberg? What a loser!
But I decide to persevere regardless.
Ready to risk it all, I slide my tray and scoot over three seats to the nearest person at my table. As I clamber over, their face seems stricken with horror — neither of us want this to be happening.
I can hardly hear anything over the deafening sounds of cutlery tinkling and students conversing, when all of a sudden, I hear this agitating, grating sound. Is that… my own voice?
I haven’t heard it in so long. I had assumed this whole time that whenever I interacted with someone with my headphones on —brief interactions like “Sorry, but you’re interrupting MF DOOM’s flow” — that I was speaking normally. But over time, I seem to have lost all volume regulation.
“What’s your… concentration?” my seat neighbor sputters out in a disoriented way that seems to really mean “Why did you just move directly next to me, and why did you choose such an awkward way to do it?”
“Philosophy,” I respond, except it comes out more as “PHILOSOPHY!!”
The clinking of plates and the conversational chatter of Berg briefly stop. Mutually stunned, the student and I sit and stare at each other wordlessly for a few moments. I rise and back up, my chair screeching behind me. I do not break eye contact. I read somewhere that it’s essential to making friends.
“I’m gonna restock on some curly fries; can I get you anything while I’m up?,” but this time, I seem to only mouth the words with my voice coming out as an intermittent squeak.
It would be really weird not to repeat myself, and not to do it in a manner that ensures they can actually hear me this time, right? So I lean in, a few inches from their ear, and repeat myself.
Shit, I went back to the other end of the volume spectrum.
I back up again with my hands in the air until I hit the back of someone’s chair at another table. My new friend (?) avoids my gaze and puts on their shiny AirPods Max.
Taking the cue, I trudge awkwardly down the row of tables. It feels as though the bust of every dead white man in the room cranes its neck and cocks its brow. In this same room, they saw Zuckerberg pretend not to be a humanoid powered by irrational disdain for girls from Boston University and several hamsters on wheels embossed with the Meta logo. And yet, this interaction was worse.
I burst through the double doors out of Annenberg and turn right. As I walk to class in Sever, my hands are shaking from Spotify withdrawal. I return my headphones to their rightful place and blast Radiohead’s “Creep” on the way to class. Maybe I’ll try this exploration again tomorrow.