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 that we are in fact interacting with each other in order to accomplish this, subtle though these exchanges may be.

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.

Goffman theorized that what we achieve, socially speaking, with this kind of interaction, is mutual recognition that the others 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 their proximity to us and their demeanor, and 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. And, we demonstrate the same about ourselves. 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.

So, 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.