I sat there, in the front entrance Sharples, at the series of tables that everyone has no choice but to walk past as they enter. I held a crimson Center for Innovation and Leadership pen in my right hand, and before me lay a stack of crisp white petitions. I had been there for over an hour, and in that time, countless people had approached the glass front doors of the dining hall. Every time, ten feet before they could even touch the steely handles, I had no choice but to accidentally make eye contact with them. And every time, they gave me The Look.
You know The Look. If you don’t know The Look, you can imagine The Look. A petrified gaze ahead of them that tunneled through my corneas and into my brain. Deep discomfort all-around as they mentally screamed at me, “Please, for the love of god, do not try to speak to me. Do not try to look at me. Please, oh God, just let me eat my lasagna in peace. I would rather be physically waterboarded right here, right now, than have to speak to you.”
But the joke was on them, because I was equally uncomfortable the entire time.
Tabling at Sharples in every sense of the words, is deeply uncomfortable. The mere existence of the activity thrusts everyone involved into a chasm of distress. Both tablers and tablees each only want one thing — tablers want people’s attention, and tablees want nothing but to eat a quiet meal in peace. Before I first tabled, when I only had the perspective of a tablee, I oftentimes found myself annoyed when tablers gave me unwelcomed attention in the Sharples foyer. I smiled and thanked the tabler for the flyers and other pieces of paper, even though I knew that they would inevitably end up in the recycling.
As a tabler, however, it feels dehumanizing to greet people who won’t even offer a simple, “Hi” in return. When people looked away from me and ignored every word that came out of my mouth while speed-walking away, I felt discouraged, but I couldn’t blame them. After all, they didn’t ask for this, and regardless of the causes for which people table, it is undeniable that tabling is a form of unsolicited confrontation. This innate sense of rejection that I felt while tabling forced me to reevaluate the role of tablers at Sharples. I hate, hate, hate assuming the role of the tabler. I absolutely abhor assuming the role of the tablee. As I reflect on my experience tabling, however, I’ve come to understand the tradition as a physical manifestation of our collective aversion to confrontation.
In my experience, Swarthmore is a safer place than it is unsafe, and I regret that anyone should be able to take this profound luxury for granted. Not only does Swat’s environment provide necessary physical safety, but also a lack of confrontation altogether. I don’t mean fearful confrontation, but instead the commonplace confrontation that lets us learn how to say no every once in a while. At Swarthmore, not only do we end up overcommitting ourselves as a result of this absence of confrontation, but we also end up lacking the ability to say no politely and gracefully. This aversion to confrontation isn’t unique to Swatties, but as a whole, we are remarkably unskilled at denying each other.
As individual human beings, there’s not a lot that we intrinsically owe each other as a consequence of our very existence. Tablees certainly don’t owe it to tablers to sign their petitions and complete their surveys. We do owe it to each other, however, to be able to say no to potential obligations without denying anyone basic human decency and courtesy. The proper response to an unwanted tabler is to simply politely decline and to walk away. Affording our own peers and classmates a simple “Hello, no thanks!” when they ask us to complete a task should be a commonplace procedure. If we can’t treat members of our own community with that basic level of courtesy, then I don’t know how we can possible productively deal with innocuous confrontation outside of the Swat bubble.
Please be kind to the people who table at Sharples, even if you want no part of their undertaking. The confrontation of tabling is one of the few glimpses on Swarthmore’s campus that we have outside of the Swat bubble, and it’s not going away any time soon. As long as Sharples continues to provide young, passionate students with such a platform to reach out to others, the tradition of tabling will live on. It is certainly a solution to ignore tablers altogether, to follow the principle of “out of sight, out of mind.” But as long as we as an institution continue to value each other as fellow human beings, the only good solution is to learn how to handle the word “no.”