Civil inattention

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

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.[1]

In practice[edit]

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"[2] 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.[3] Through brief eye contact with an approaching stranger, we both acknowledge their presence and foreclose the possibility of more personal contact or of conversation.[4]

Civil inattention is thus a means of making privacy possible within a crowd through culturally accepted forms of self-distancing.[5] Seemingly (though not in reality) effortless,[6] such civility is a way of shielding others from personal claims in public[7] – an essential feature of the abstract, impersonal relationships demanded by the open society.[8]

Taking photographs in public is often a violation of civil inattention. For example, street photographers doing candid photography, social documentary photographers taking close-up pictures of strangers to record people's history, or editorial photographers recording a piece of clothing or outfit worn by an individual may breach norms of politeness and personal boundaries. Additionally, photojournalists may take pictures of a location (and the people in it) for a news story.

Negative aspects[edit]

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.[9]

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".[10] Such a public double standard has been challenged by feminists, who resent the expectation that female appearance/behavior may be routinely commented on.[11]

Such behavior may then escalate into staring, stalking and insulting harassment, revealing the costs a breach of civil inattention may bring.[12]

Insanity of place[edit]

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"[13] – stark indications of the subject's loss of the (acquired) capacity for civil inattention.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Joanne Finkelstein, The Art of Self-Invention (2007) p. 109
  2. ^ Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (Penguin 1972) p. 385
  3. ^ Elaine Baldwin, Introducing Cultural Studies (2004) p. 396 and 276
  4. ^ W.M. Mellinger, "Doing Modernity Through Civil Inattention"
  5. ^ Finkelstein, p. 109
  6. ^ Goffman, p. 385
  7. ^ Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (1976) p. 264
  8. ^ Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies Vol 1 (1995) p. 174-6
  9. ^ Franco Moretti, Modern Epic (1996) p. 156
  10. ^ Goffman, p. 249
  11. ^ Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory (1992) p. 167
  12. ^ Baldwin, p. 396
  13. ^ Goffman, p. 415

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]