January 03, 2022

Civil Inattention: Behind the Mask in the COVID Era

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

The pandemic has clearly impacted the way people interact in public. First, we often wear masks, a practice very unusual in the U.S. before 2020. We might give people a wide berth when encountering them on public sidewalks, walking in the street sometimes to avoid passing too closely. (The chorus of The Police’s 1980 hit song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” has a whole new meaning now.)

And sometimes, we just ignore each other.

This is of course nothing new. Sociologist and payer-of-attention to the most micro-level of interactions Erving Goffman coined the phrase “civil inattention” in his book Relations in Public  referring to strangers’ unspoken agreement upon encountering one another not to interact (see chapter 6). Interactions between strangers of course vary, as this blog post detailed back in 2011.

Masks can help enable civil inattention and prevent people who know each other from recognizing each other in public places. I must admit, this can be welcome at times when I am feeling less than social or in a hurry, especially walking across campus from a class to my office. Interactions—even with people we like—can be time consuming and in some cases, emotionally taxing. Since talking involves a spray of droplets and possible viral transmission, we might be relieved to do less face-to-face chatting. At the risk of sounding anti-social, civil inattention can be very efficient.

The politicization of mask wearing also can heighten divisions between people in public spaces, as news stories detail conflicts over masks that sometimes become violent. In some instances saying nothing to a stranger is the best we can do, as I experienced when an unmasked shopper approached me to market her business in the grocery store (a countywide indoor mask order had been in place). Since I was annoyed, walking away in silence was my best option rather than confrontation.

Although anecdotal, I have noticed when people aren’t masked in places where they are supposed to be, they may avoid eye contact, and for obvious reasons others may physically steer clear of them too. In our small community gym (maximum capacity 8, according to fire code), we tend to see the same people regularly, and most of us at the very least nod or say hello. There are a few people who repeatedly don’t answer a basic hello or respond to a nod, which can be awkward in a relatively small space. This type of inattention feels rather uncivil (Goffman described this as “nonperson treatment” on p. 84), and I often wonder what is behind the reluctance to offer even the most basic of acknowledgements that another person has recognized your existence.

There can serious downsides to civil inattention. People might be feeling isolated during the pandemic, especially if they live alone and are working from home. A lack of interaction in public can only add to this feeling. Civil inattention is something that might be experienced more when people are visibly suffering. As Peter Kaufman wrote just months before his 2018 death, when his health deteriorated he noticed fewer colleagues asked how he was doing:

Some of my colleagues may avoid me not only to escape their own feelings of awkwardness, but also to protect me from what they perceive as my discomfort with the conversation. And I will admit, many of my interactions these days are awkward and confusing. I am often at a loss about how much information to share and how forthright I should be in my responses to the simple question: “How are you doing?” There is no longer an easy or clichéd answer for me to offer. Since my diagnosis, I find myself in this ambivalent interpersonal space where I want people to ask me how I’m doing while simultaneously recoiling from the thought of having to respond.  

How we interact with one another is complicated, with no simple rules that must be followed in all situations. What examples of civil inattention have you noticed, both pre-pandemic and more recently?

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