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never meet your heroes [lifestyle]

the ultimate guide to parasocial relationships at brown university

The warm, sunny days of spring are almost upon us. Sure, returning to the great outdoors will be nice, but there’s something else about spring that is the real source of our excitement. Springtime heralds the emergence of all the people who have, until now, been hermiting away to weather out the winter, which can mean only one thing: it’s campus character season. It’s time to spy someone walking in front of Sayles one day and become instantly captivated. To be captivated doesn’t equate to romantic feelings—though, of course, that’s a valid and viable option. You might simply find their face intriguing or slightly off-putting. Their gait might be so funny you can’t help but giggle. Maybe their song lyric tattoo is so regrettable it’s fascinating. You might spy them speeding away on a bike and feel a surge of jealousy over the way their hair ripples in the wind. Whatever the hook is, it’s got you—it’s got you good. And you’re ready to dive headfirst into a 100 percent irrational and unjustifiable parasocial relationship. Lucky for you, I’m here to make sure that relationship goes swimmingly.

I know it’s daunting. There are so many factors to consider: how to know where and when to see your campus character, how to interpret the fact that they walked on the same side of the street as you today, how to make sure that your unfounded interest is correctly understood as benign…Oh, you poor thing. Never fear. There is a way to maximize the potential of your fixation on your campus character, I promise. And it’s easy as pie!

The first step to relationship cultivation might be a bit difficult to orchestrate, but if it occurs naturally, you’re golden: your chosen person should, ideally, be removed from your social circle by three degrees of separation. The friend of a friend is too close. It’s too easy to discover enough about your character to disprove the full-length life story you’ve fabricated, or too hard to bring your friends in on the obsession without seriously raising some eyebrows. 

Let’s be honest, if one of your friends—let’s call them X—told you that they texted their group chat every time they saw your other friend, Y, in all caps—RED ALERT. Y SPOTTED IN THE SHARPE REFECTORYyou might think their behavior was a bit strange. And you might be tempted to tell Y the juicy, juicy gossip that X is obsessed with them. Now imagine being X. Judged and exposed. Awkies.


But the friend of a friend of a friend is just distant enough that you can discuss your obsession in the open and, with only minimal risk of breaching the parasocial divide, find out just the key details about your character. Think class year, one or two significant interests, maybe an anecdote. You’ll probably get your hands on enough information to bolster the character portrait you’ve constructed with proof that they’re a real person—that you’re not living in an entirely fictional world. The three degrees ensure that being introduced to them is unlikely, and that you won’t learn enough about them to be forced to come to terms with the fact that they are not, in fact, the absolute embodiment of all of the attributes you’ve meticulously assigned them in the parallel universe of your vibrant imagination. Got it? Good.

Step two. Don’t learn their schedule, but do learn their haunts. If you learn their schedule, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’ve taken it too far. But you’re totally not in the wrong if you begin to frequent the Underground and, lo and behold, they’re there too, three times within the span of a week. It’s not your fault that you both have a hankering for coffee. If anything, it makes cosmic sense that you keep ending up in the same place at the same time, and perfectly within eyesight.

Now—and this is important—even though you’ve learned where they’re likely to seek their caffeine fix, you can’t start going there for the purpose of a campus character sighting. Once again: eerie. Stalker-ish but not in a cute way. You need to let the run-ins happen organically. Go when your own cappuccino craving hits, or when you feel compelled to enjoy some moodier lighting with your studying, or if your friend suggests you meet them there for a quick break between classes. If your character happens to be there, excellent! If not, it’s ok. It just wasn’t meant to be today. You’ll catch them next time. When you do happen to run into them, it feels serendipitous. You had an idea they’d be there, but you couldn’t have been sure. It’s as though campus itself is bringing you two together. All the more fodder for your buzzing imagination. Step two complete.

Step three. You need something to call them. It can’t be their real name—that takes all the fun out of crafting a detailed, multifaceted, emotionally complex persona for a student who is oblivious to your existence I know you don’t want to acknowledge this fact when only three days ago, you made two full seconds of eye contact as you crossed paths on the Quiet Green, so they basically told you they loved you. But—don’t hate me—a reality check is important every once in a while. Anyway, no real names. A truly successful parasocial relationship rests in the careful balance between reality and delusion, and real names, unfortunately, are a glaring sign of reality. Instead, a simple solution awaits: give your character a code name. 

By calling them by a code name, you increase the likelihood that you maintain anonymity on the off chance that you have an unanticipated mutual friend. By that same token, you protect them from knowing that they’re the subject of totally undue fascination—a favor to the both of you. But most importantly, you can have fun with it. The code name can be anything; treat it like a riddle if you want to. You can let your friends in on the secret and talk about your campus character sightings together, totally out in the open, without fear of being inadvertently exposed by an eavesdropping passerby.

I’ll lend you a bit of my firsthand experience with code name creation to give you a sense of the possibilities. One of my campus characters grew out his hair and beard for a spell, and all I could think when I saw him striding oh-so-entertainingly into the Blue Room was that the locks and scruff had a sort of Biblical quality to them. The code name came to me in a strike of inspiration: Hot Jesus. Since that day, whenever I’ve seen him striding around campus, I’ve been able to poke my friends and say, “Look! Hot Jesus!” They say, “Oh my god, Hot Jesus!” and we discuss how his outfit particularly elevates his deific vibes today. Now imagine how much fun you can have with your campus character if you, too, grant them a code name. Mystery. Secrecy. Intrigue.

Now, steel yourself. There’s one fourth and final rule, and while it may be the most tempting one to break, it’s by far the most important one to abide by. As strong the allure, as fantastic the fascination, you must not speak to your campus character. Excuse me for a moment while I succumb to my English student tendencies and invoke Flaubert, but I do think he says it best: “Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.” In other words, if you break the parasocial contract and establish real, irreversible verbal contact, you’ll shatter the mystery. You’ll unravel your fiction of Dickensian proportion. You’ll find out that they’re not, in fact, everything you’ve made them out to be, down to the minutest detail, that they’re not unconditionally and irrevocably in love with you, if that’s the story you’ve been telling yourself. In layman’s terms, my dear: you’ll ruin the bit. And for goodness’s sake, after all this hard work, don’t ruin the bit. You and your parasocial relationship deserve better than that.

With that, my apprentice, my young sage, I think you’re ready. Go relish the glorious weeks of spring. Put on your best, most eye-catching sundress or T-shirt. Find your campus character and live out the parasocial relationship of your dreams.

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