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.

How to improve the graduate student-faculty adviser relationship

An English professor has discovered that there are a lot of graduate students (and former graduate students) who are upset with what they perceive to be lack of information given to them by their graduate advisers. The professor suggests how this relationship between graduate student and adviser could be improved:

That failure rests absolutely on us. We’re the teachers, and the initiative is ours. The communication gap between graduate teachers and graduate students is an intramural version of the crisis facing academe writ large: Professors are only lately waking up to the need to take their assigned part in the continuing and necessary discussion of the role of the university in society today.

We need likewise to rethink our role in the education of our graduate students. Professional-development seminars, which I discussed last month, help stake out common understanding between professors and graduate students, but communication only starts there. Advisers need to advance it. We shouldn’t wait for students to ask what’s out there careerwise. It’s part of our job to tell them. To mend the gap, we must mind the gap—or else corrosive anger will widen it…

I’m not sure I’d let the teachers off the hook so easily, but we should pay attention to the reader’s larger point, namely: Graduate students, as well as their professors, have responsibility for the choices they make.

School is a place where teachers tell students what to do. At the same time, school is supposed to prepare students to make choices for themselves. In between those two realities lie a lot of teaching and learning—and professional development. Both professors and students have to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions before us: We both must learn how to work together so that our students can leave us with every possible advantage. We all need to keep our eyes open.

On the whole, it sounds like there simply needs to be more conversation within graduate schools about the possibilities and pitfalls that graduate students and practitioners of particular disciplines will face in a changing world. The experience a faculty member might have had 20 years ago may not repeat itself but at the same time, the graduate student shouldn’t take that past experience as a factual story about how things always work.

A missing part of this conversation seems to be the interests of the graduate department and the school/university at large. Graduate departments generally want to produce students who go on to good jobs at Research 1 institutions. These departments are rated on this productivity, particularly by their peers at other Research 1 institutions. Would a department who puts a majority of PhDs in private industry when the norm for the field is Research 1 jobs be punished or be looked down upon? What incentives could be put into place so that departments would promote a broader range of options for students with advanced degrees?

Something might be said here as well for students building close relationships with several faculty. Advisers are important, particularly for the thesis and dissertation stages. But it is helpful to have other perspectives as well, something that is not possible if a student is tied to only one faculty member.