Jerry Davich: Do you routinely practice ‘civil inattention’ too?
JERRY DAVICH July 4, 2013 7:16PM
Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 6, 2013 6:06AM
The thirty-something woman politely acknowledged my smile but refused to make eye contact with me as we stood next to each other in the grocery store aisle.
It’s not as if I was flirting with her, staring at her, or even striking up a chatty conversation, something I rarely do in public places. But I was intrigued how many other shoppers that day treated me the same way, regardless of their age, looks or gender.
Some returned only my smile. Others returned my eye contact, too, albeit very briefly. Most appeared to be uncomfortable, even painfully awkward, at our exchange of social pleasantries that bordered on something deeper. I became even more intrigued.
“It’s called civil inattention,” explained my girlfriend, Karen, who learned about this sociological phenomenon back in college. “For some reason, it’s always stuck with me.”
It has always stuck with me, too, but I didn’t know it had a label — civil inattention. I immediately looked it up.
“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,” one definition stated. “It’s a recognition of the claims of others to a public space, and a sign also of their own personal boundaries.”
Simply put, the unspoken rule is that in a transient public encounter, strangers give visual notice to each other — a nod, smile, or quick eye contact — and then withdraw their attention. This sort of exchange takes place even more commonly in big cities where newcomers initially don’t understand it’s needed for a peaceful co-existence.
Civil inattention is used to create the impression that we are unaware of what is going on so that others can maintain the sense that what they say and do is taking place in private. I find this behavior extremely captivating in public spaces.
“Civil inattention is a fascinating phenomenon and, when I discuss this in my class, students just love it,” said Charles Gallmeier, sociology professor at Indiana University Northwest. “We all practice it, especially in public bathrooms.”
Public bathrooms? Of course, I realized in flashback hindsight. Especially in men’s public restrooms, where we typically stare into a blank wall over a urinal for a few minutes rather than dare look to either side of us. It’s just unheard of with guys.
Gallmeier noted that the old TV show “Candid Camera” showcased civil inattention without even knowing it was a sociological concept. It’s just classic television and classic human behavior, my most enjoyable form of entertainment — watching us interact with each other.
For example, have you ever sat inside a restaurant next to other diners who appear to be having a private but quite audible conversation? Have you ever caught yourself purposely looking anywhere but at them while still to trying to overhear every word they say? This child-like game of “pretend” is called civil inattention for adults.
Same thing in elevators, where we take great pains to pretend we’re not crammed together with strangers in a small box that often moves too s-l-o-w-l-y for our comfort level.
Rather than appear to ignore, offend or stare at others in such public situations, civil inattention allows us to politely acknowledge them enough to create a “neutral interaction.” Such neutral interactions, similar to mindless chit-chat with strangers (which I abhor), is what often fills our day in between work, home, errands, and hobbies.
In an odd sort of way, it’s a common technique to self-distance ourselves from others under the agreed-upon illusion of privacy, even if we’re surrounded by hundreds of people.
On the down side, such actions can lead us, or others, to feel not only lonely, but also invisible. And things get even murkier when different races or genders are involved, for instance a man who looks one second too long at a woman in a public setting. It’s as if there is some kind of breach of civil inattention and I, for one, notice it immediately.
Gallmeier, my favorite professor of sociology, will be my on-air guest on today’s Casual Fridays radio show from noon to 1 p.m. on WLPR, 89.1-FM, streaming at www.lakeshorepublicmedia.org. We’ll explore this subject and you are welcomed to join the discussion by calling 769-9577. Don’t worry, no eye contact is necessary.
Wind beneath your wings
I rarely share YouTube videos in my column, but for any fans of Bette Midler, or for the true spirit of humanity, the famous singer recently made one of her fan’s dreams come true and it was captured on video.
Midler sang her famous hit “The Wind Beneath My Wings” during a touching phone chat with 28-year-old terminal cancer patient Anna Greenberg of Arizona, who lay on her deathbed in a hospital.
“You’re such a wonderful soul and I am so glad that I got the chance to meet you,” Midler told Greenberg, after first meeting her last year at the premiere of her movie “Parental Guidance.”
Greenberg told Midler, “You have always brought me up when I was down, with many of your different songs.”
You can tell Midler struggled with her emotions while singing her signature song under those circumstances. But she did so with grace, humility and compassion — words not often associated with stars and celebrities these days.
Greenberg was touched by the gesture, even though she was on morphine to curb her pain.
Three days later, on May 28, Greenberg asked for her bed to be rolled to the window so she could watch the sunset with her parents. Her father always loves sunsets, she knew.
“It wasn’t a particularly impressive sunset, he says, and he promised her they’d watch again the next day, but she died at 5 p.m.,” her obituary states. “She died with her eyes open and at the end of the sunset, she closed her eyes.”
You can watch the video of their phone chat exchange here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJg1PEmh_hA. Have a tissue handy.