Two videos of walking in sync with strangers

I’ve used a YouTube video of some students walking in sync with strangers several times in my Introduction to Sociology class. While the video has just over 7,500 views (of which I’ve probably contributed at least 10), it is pretty good compared to a lot of other YouTube breaching experiment or breaking social norms videos.

Here is another take on the same scenario: a more professional short film on walking in unison with strangers.

It happens often enough: you’re going down a busy street and all of a sudden you find yourself walking at the exact same pace as a stranger and … uh oh, time to speed up or slow down.

This phenomenon is masterfully captured in Walking Contest, a new short film from artists Daniel Koren and Vania Heymann. In the video, shot entirely on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, Koren avoids walking next to strangers by treating it as a race. But he ultimately questions why we react so strongly to this phenomenon in the first place. Is it because it seems rude, unsafe, or just too awkward?

Both videos do something interesting: they adopt some sort of ruse or mask that helps make walking in unison with a stranger, not a normal behavior, easier. The more professional video suggests walking together is a contest. The student video shows those intentionally breaking the norms wearing sunglasses or headphones so they presumably can plead ignorance at walking in unison with others. These techniques echo some of the early findings from breaching experiments with Garfinkel and his students where it was hard, sometimes even physically so, for people to intentionally break social rules.

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.

Highlighting the isolation and independence of McMansions

A feature of McMansions that sometimes draws criticism is the possible isolation they offer their inhabitants. Neighborhoods of these homes are sometimes envisioned as wastelands where neighbors don’t know each other and really don’t want to have any interaction. Here is an illustration of this idea within an article about the “peer-to-peer economy”:

The mentality peaked during the ’90s and first half of the last decade. Heaven was a safe job, a McMansion, a Target (TGT) in your city, a Starbucks (SBUX) down the road, a credit card with no limit, and a seven-figure bank account. No need to ever interact with strangers! The perfect bliss of isolation, err, “financial independence.”

The general idea here is that the goal of life during this time period was to have so much money that people don’t have to interact with others that they don’t want to interact with. While this may be in the name of being “financially independent,” it is really about becoming self-sufficient and not having to depend on anybody.

Several thoughts about this:

1. Even with this so-called “financial independence,” it is hard to escape the need for other people. I’m reminded of Durkheim’s idea of organic solidarity where people are more interdependent on others than ever due to the division of labor but also feel more independent. This seems related to American cultural ideas of individualism: the goal is to become a self-made man/woman who can do it all on their own. Can we then interpret advice from people like Dave Ramsey as promulgating American individualism more than fighting debt?

1a. This fear of strangers is an interesting idea. It is often invoked when talking about the formation of American suburbs (white flight out of cities) or gated communities (trying to keep certain people out). I wonder if there is survey data that would suggests Americans are more afraid of strangers than citizens of other countries.

2. Is a single-family house more of a place to avoid people or to build up the individual and the family unit?

3. I understand the idea of a McMansion and a large bank account fitting the theme of isolation but what do a safe job, Target, and Starbucks have to do with it? In all three of these settings, people interact with others, particularly on the job. With money, one can purchase a customizable experience at Target and Starbucks but this would be true in a lot of commercial settings.

A course on strangers: Stranger Studies 101

For a number of early sociologists, the city was a fascinating place. Of particular interest was the changing nature of human relationships – instead of primary group relationships formed in small villages or towns, more and more people were flooding into cities were relationships were characterized by indifference and blase attitudes.

Professor Kio Stark has picked up on these themes in what he calls “Stranger Studies.” At Atlantic, Stark has laid out a brief syllabus for what Stranger Studies 101 might look like.

This looks like a fascinating course. And Stark’s conclusion is humorous “Although I do not recommend it, by the end of the semester my students could likely launch successful careers as grifters.”