Living life online

Living life online

For many of us the online world has become our real life. Most strangers don-'t talk to each other in urban public places, while some perceive this as...

For many of us the online world has become our real life. Most strangers don't talk to each other in urban public places, while some perceive this as a callous disregard for others. Mobile devices have taken over all forms of communication; people are increasingly lost with their smartphones, seemingly ignorant to what is going on around them. Social interaction has taken a backseat and social media interaction is trending extensively. But why are people being ignorant about each other within their proximity, is it because they want to respect the other person’s space or are they being rude as some people perceive.

Sociologist Erving Goffman, who spent his life studying the most subtle forms of social interaction, developed the concept of ‘civil inattention.’ Goffman through years of studying people in public documented that what we are actually doing is pretending to be unaware of what others are doing around us, thereby affording them a sense of privacy, as they do the same for us. He mentioned that civil inattention at first, typically involves a minor form of social interaction, like very brief eye contact, the exchange of head nods, or weak smiles. Following that, both parties then avert their eyes from each other.

Goffman theorised 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 also that both agree 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 of their proximity to us and their demeanor, and as we shift our focus from them, we are not rudely ignoring, but actually showing respect. We are recognising the right of others to be left alone and assert our own right to the same.

Goffman emphasised 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 behaviour. We affirm that there is nothing wrong with it, that there is no reason to intervene, and no behaviour need be arrested. And, we demonstrate the same about ourselves. Sometimes, we use civil inattention to a face-saver when we do things which are embarrassing, or to help manage the embarrassment that another might feel if we witness them trip, or spill, or drop something.

Civil inattention is thus not a problem, but an important part of maintaining social order in public. For this reason, problems arise when this norm is violated. Because we expect it from others and see it as normal behaviour, 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.

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