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 – a recognition of the claims of others to a public space, and a sign also of their own personal boundaries.
Civil inattention was described by Erving Goffman as part of the "surface character of public order ... individuals exert respectful care in regard to the setting and treat others present with civil inattention" in order to make anonymised life in cities possible.
Rather than either ignoring or staring at others, civil inattention involves the unobtrusive and peaceful scanning of others so as to allow for neutral interaction. Through brief eye contact with an approaching stranger, we both acknowledge their presence and foreclose the possibility of more personal contact or of conversation.
Civil inattention is thus a means of making privacy possible within a crowd through culturally accepted forms of self-distancing. Seemingly (though not in reality) effortless, such civility is a way of shielding others from personal claims in public – an essential feature of the abstract, impersonal relationships demanded by the open society.
Violations of civil inattention are often necessary, for example by street photographers who do candid photography for fine art purposes, by social documentary photographers who take pictures of strangers from a close distance for people's history purposes, and by photojournalists who may take pictures of people walking in a street or of a specific person to use as a stock picture for a news story connected to a specific street or an editorial related to a piece of clothing an individual in a street wears.
Civil inattention can lead to feelings of loneliness or invisibility, and it reduces the tendency to feel responsibility for the well-being of others. Newcomers to urban areas are often struck by the impersonality of such routines, which they may see as callous and uncaring, rather than as necessary for the peaceful co-existence of close-packed millions.
Goffman noted that "when men and women cross each other's path at close quarters, the male will exercise the right to look for a second or two at the female ... Civil inattention, then, can here involve a degree of role differentiation regarding obligations". Such a public double standard has been challenged by feminists, who resent the expectation that female appearance/behavior may be routinely commented on.
Insanity of place
Looking at tacit obligations governing participation in public/semi-public place, Goffman noted how "many classic symptoms of psychosis are precise and pointed violations of these territorial arrangements. There are encroachments, as when a mental patient visiting a supermarket gratuitously riffles through a shopper's cart, or ... 'hyperpreclusions', as when a patient shies away from passing glances" – stark indications of the subject's loss of the (acquired) capacity for civil inattention.
- Joanne Finkelstein, The Art of Self-Invention (2007) p. 109
- Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (Penguin 1972) p. 385
- Elaine Baldwin, Introducing Cultural Studies (2004) p. 396 and 276
- W.M. Mellinger, "Doing Modernity Through Civil Inattention"
- Finkelstein, p. 109
- Goffman, p. 385
- Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (1976) p. 264
- Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies Vol 1 (1995) p. 174-6
- Franco Moretti, Modern Epic (1996) p. 156
- Goffman, p. 249
- Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory (1992) p. 167
- Baldwin, p. 396
- Goffman, p. 415
- Giddens, Anthony Sociology 2nd edition polity press 1994
- Bauman, Zygmunt & May, Tim Thinking Sociologically 2nd edition Blackwell Publishing 2001
- Goffman, E. (1984) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin) originally published in 1959
- Kim, Esther (16 July 2012). "Nonsocial Transient Behavior: Social Disengagement on the Greyhound Bus". Symbolic Interaction. Retrieved First published online on 16 July 2012.