The sociological term “civil inattention” sticks with people

I’ve noticed that some of my Introduction to Sociology students really latch on to the idea of “civil inattention” and it appears others might have the same experience:

Some returned only my smile. Others returned my eye contact, too, albeit very briefly. Most appeared to be uncomfortable, even painfully awkward, at our exchange of social pleasantries that bordered on something deeper. I became even more intrigued.

“It’s called civil inattention,” explained my girlfriend, Karen, who learned about this sociological phenomenon back in college. “For some reason, it’s always stuck with me.”

It has always stuck with me, too, but I didn’t know it had a label — civil inattention. I immediately looked it up.

“Civil inattention is the process whereby strangers who are in close proximity demonstrate that they are aware of one another, without imposing on each other,” one definition stated. “It’s a recognition of the claims of others to a public space, and a sign also of their own personal boundaries.”

Simply put, the unspoken rule is that in a transient public encounter, strangers give visual notice to each other — a nod, smile, or quick eye contact — and then withdraw their attention. This sort of exchange takes place even more commonly in big cities where newcomers initially don’t understand it’s needed for a peaceful co-existence.

So why does this concept stick with people? I have a few thoughts:

1. Individuals feel guilty about this breakdown in communication. Perhaps they blame themselves for not being able to engage others, perhaps they blame the other person for rejecting them. Either way, the involved people feel like something went wrong.

2. People really seem to notice this in cities where they are in close proximity to other people but there is no interaction. In fact, people are trying to deliberately avoid interaction. Think the image of New Yorkers avoiding direct eye contact at all costs. Perhaps there is some implicit contrast with the stereotypical small-town life where everyone knows everyone. Of course, most Americans don’t live in such a setting.

3. There is a larger issue of how to act around strangers. Kids often hear strangers are dangerous. Does this change much when people get older? We hear all sorts of stories and data involving other groups and perhaps simply don’t know what to do when presented with people who fit those categories. In other words, civil inattention represents an inability to interact with people different than ourselves.

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