April 09, 2018

Masks and Nods: Distancing and Bids for Acknowledgement


Jonathan WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

The recent news about Amazon Go stores developing technology that eliminates the need for cashiers has renewed concerns over technology’s ability to not only eliminate working class jobs, but also peel away another layer of interpersonal connection. Small interactions can matter, big time.

Cities and shopping are zones of personal contact, places for micro-level exchanges. It got me thinking a lot about all those small interactions that I enjoy. (My friends tease me over how much I like to make small talk with people and it’s somewhat true. I often try simple nonstandard interactional responses like: “How would you like your coffee?” “Black like my heart.”) I love small micro interactions.

Watching people interact is the ethnographer’s pastime. I can watch people make and avoid eye contact with each other for hours. When I was walking through Buenos Aires last summer I noticed how people would not make eye contact on the sidewalk until the very last possible second. (I asked some women about this and they said that they called it “comprobando la hora,” or “checking the time.” That sounded right.)

In New York City, the practice is very different: you might look at someone on the sidewalk, perhaps 20 paces away, but then never make eye contact again. It’s not that you would be unaware of the other. You just wouldn’t engage. Goffman had a phrase for it. (He had phrases for everything.) He called the studious avoidance of gaze, yet awareness of others “civic inattention.” (Read Wayne Mellinger’s great Everyday Sociology Blog post about this here.) I wonder how it’s different in your community.

Regardless of where I’m visiting (and if the sun is out), wearing sunglasses is great, because you can look at people and situations a little more freely. I totally understand why famous musicians and actors wear sunglasses! They don’t do it to be pretentious, I imagine, but for the same reason I do: freedom from the obligation to maintain or dismiss eye contact, to disengage with people, but still look at them. I could imagine, if everyone wanted my autograph, I would a.) want to avoid eye contact and b.) I would want to be free to look around and assess if anyone is going to invade my privacy. Goffman—again—called something like wearing sunglasses an “involvement shield.”

Talking on the phone, or reading a newspaper might also suffice as an involvement shield. I know several women who would wear headphones—not even listening to music—in order to dissuade men from interacting with them at cafés. For another example, a recent article in Mobile Media & Communication examines how Pokémon Go serves as both an “involvement shield” and a “social catalyst.” In Japan, I noticed a lot of women on the street using surgical face masks. It seems like there is a rather complicated history about it, including reasons like airborne illnesses and pollution, but for some people it’s a way to obscure their faces and avoid harassment in public places.

In Behavior in Public Places, Goffman cites Georg Simmel when writing about “face engagements.” Simmel notes that the senses should be a critical piece of sociological analysis, and states that “the union and interaction of individuals is based upon mutual glances [which serve as a] bridge.” Similarly, Ortega y Gasset, in Man and People, catalogs a series of glances (e.g., “sidewise glance”).

What about micro-level bids for connection, rather than distancing? Here's another micro-level passerby interaction: the “Black nod.” In a recent article, “Racing through the halls of Congress,” James R. Jones writes about how a small gesture like a nod holds a heck of a lot of meaning. It’s an acknowledgment of shared experience. He says that the “Black nod” as an adaptive strategy for surviving in a raced institution, but it could also be about transmitting respect within any predominantly white spaces. Musa Okwonga writes, in Medium:

It’s a swift yet intimate statement of ethnic solidarity. The Nod is saying, “Wow, well, I really didn’t expect to see another one of us out here, but you seem to be doing your thing just fine. More power to you, and all the very best.”

Dom Jones writes:

Salutations such as the black nod, dap, the pound, even the way we shake hands or hug are all an integral part of black culture. It's a small, yet consistent way that we show each other we still care about one another, and one of the last vestiges of black culture that I actually have yet to see appropriated.

The “black nod” goes well beyond Washington D.C., of course, particularly in mostly white spaces. (The third episode of Black-ish was titled and is about this, too.)

I love how at the very micro-level there are all these interactions that can create fences or bridges, creating distance and bidding for attention. We probably don’t think too much about them, but they’re everywhere.

Perhaps they are most evident, like most social norms, when people breech those informal interactional rules. It's humorous, for example, when people don’t abide by the urban rules of civic inattention. Speaking of New York City, I remember walking through an area of Central Park called the Ramble with my father. My dad is an avid outdoors guy, so the minute that the environment switched to a more woodland landscape, he started doing something that you do whenever you hike but would never do to someone on the sidewalks of Gotham: he started saying hello to everyone. It was quite a compliment to the planners of the park, Vaux and Olmstead! Even I’m not that friendly.

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