Why We Really Ignore Each Other in Public

Understanding Civil Inattention

People looking at phones, ignoring each other on subway.
Natthawat Jamnapa/Getty Images

Those who don't live in cities often remark on the fact that strangers don't talk to each other in urban public places. Some perceive this as rude or cold; as a callous disregard for, or disinterest, in others. Some lament the way we are increasingly lost in our mobile devices, seemingly oblivious to what is going on around us. But sociologists recognize that the space we give each other in the urban realm serves an important social function, and they call this practice of giving others space civil inattention. Sociologists also note that we are in fact interacting with each other in order to accomplish this, subtle though these exchanges may be.

Key Takeaways: Civil Inattention

  • Civil inattention involves giving others a sense of privacy when they are in public.
  • We engage in civil inattention in order to be polite and to show others that we are not a threat to them.
  • When people do not provide us with civil inattention in public, we may become annoyed or distressed.

Background

Well-known and respected sociologist Erving Goffman, who spent his life studying the most subtle forms of social interaction, developed the concept of "civil inattention" in his 1963 book Behavior in Public Places. Far from ignoring those around us, Goffman documented through years of studying people in public that what we are actually doing is pretending to not be aware of what others are doing around us, thereby affording them a sense of privacy. Goffman documented in his research that civil inattention typically involves at first a minor form of social interaction, like very brief eye contact, the exchange of head nods, or weak smiles. Following that, both parties then typically avert their eyes from the other.

The Function of Civil Inattention

Goffman theorized that what we achieve, socially speaking, with this kind of interaction, is mutual recognition that the other person present poses no threat to our safety or security, and so we both agree, tacitly, to let the other alone to do as they please. Whether or not we have that initial minor form of contact with another in public, we are likely aware, at least peripherally, of both their proximity to us and their demeanor. As we direct our gaze away from them, we are not rudely ignoring, but actually showing deference and respect. We are recognizing the right of others to be left alone, and in doing so, we assert our own right to the same.

In his writing on the subject Goffman emphasized that this practice is about assessing and avoiding risk, and demonstrating that we ourselves pose no risk to others. When we provide civil inattention to others, we effectively sanction their behavior. We affirm that there is nothing wrong with it, and that there is no reason to intervene in what the other person is doing. Additionally, we demonstrate the same about ourselves.

Examples of Civil Inattention

You might engage in civil inattention when you’re on a crowded train or subway and you hear another person having a loud, overly personal conversation. In this situation, you may decide to respond by checking your phone or taking out a book to read, so that the other person doesn’t think that you’re trying to overhear their conversation.

Sometimes, we use civil inattention to "save face" when we have done something that we feel embarrassed by, or to help manage the embarrassment that another might feel if we witness them trip, or spill, or drop something. For example, if you see that someone has spilled coffee all over their clothing, you might make an effort to not stare at the stain, since you know that they’re likely already aware of the stain, and staring at them would only make them feel self-conscious.

What Happens When Civil Inattention Does Not Occur

Civil inattention is not a problem, but rather an important part of maintaining social order in public. For this reason, problems arise when this norm is breached. Because we expect it from others and see it as normal behavior, we may feel threatened by someone who does not give it to us. This is why staring or unrelenting attempts at unwanted conversation bother us. It's not just that they are annoying, but that by deviating from the norm that ensures safety and security, they imply a threat. This is why women and girls feel threatened, rather than flattered, by those who catcall them, and why for some men, simply being stared at by another is enough to provoke a physical fight.