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Civil Inattention by Erving Goffman, 1963

Commentator: Mitzub'ixi Quq Chi'j

Civil Inattention [pp.83- ]

When persons are mutually present and not involved together in conversation or other focused interaction, it is possible for one person to stare openly and fixedly at others, gleaning what he can about them while frankly expressing on his face his response to what he sees-for example, the "hate stare" that a . Southern white sometimes gratuitously gives to Negroes walking past him.(1) It is also possible for one person to treat others as if they were not there at all, as objects not worthy of a glance, let -[p.84]- alone close scrutiny. Moreover, it is possible for the individual, by his staring or his "not seeing," to alter his own appearance hardly at all in consequence of the presence of the others. Here we have "nonperson" treatment; it may be seen in our society in the way we sometimes treat children,servants, Negroes, and mental patients.(2)

(1). J. H. Griffin, Black Like Me (Boston: Houghton Miftlin, 1961) , pp. 54, 128.
(2). The Presentation of Self, pp. 151-153.

Currently, in our society, this kind of treatment is to be contrasted with the kind generally felt to be more proper in most situations, which‾ will here be called "civil inattention." What seems to be involved is that one gives to another enough visual notice to demonstrate that one appreciates that the other is present (and that one admits openly to having seen him), while at the next moment withdrawing one's attention from him so as to express that he does not constitute a target of special curiosity or design.

In performing this courtesy the eyes of the looker may pass over the eyes of the other, but no "recognition" is typically allowed. Where the courtesy is performed between two persons passing on the street, civil inattention may take the special form of eyeing the other up to approximately eight feet, during which time sides of the street are apportioned by gesture, and then casting the eyes down as the other passes-a kind of dimming of lights. In any case, we have here what is perhaps the slightest of interpersonal rituals, yet one that constantly regulates the social intercourse of persons in our society.

By according civil inattention, the individual.implies that he has no reason to suspect the intentions of the others present and no reason to fear the others, be hostile to them, or wish to avoid them. (At the same time, in extending this courtesy he automatically opens himself up to a like treatment from others present.) This demonstrates that he has nothing to fear or avoid in being seen and being seen seeing, and that he is not ashamed of himself or of the place and company in which he finds himself. It will therefore be necessary for him to have a certain "directness" of eye expression. As one student suggests, the individual's -[p.85]- gaze ought not to be guarded or averted or absent or defensively dramatic, as if "something were going on." Indeed, the exhibition of such deflected eye expressions may be taken as a symptom of some kind of mental disturbances.(3)

(3). M. D. Riemer, "Abnormalities of the Gaze-A Classification," Psychiatric Quarterly,29 (1955),659-672.

Civil inattention is so delicate an adjustment that we may expect constant evasion of the rules regarding it. Dark glasses, for example, allow the wearer to stare at another person without that other being sure that he is being stared at.(4) One person can look at another out of the comer of his eyes. The fan and parasol once served as similar aids in stealing glances, and in polite Western society the decline in use of these instruments in the last fifty years has lessened the elasticity of communication arrangements.(5) It should be added, too, that the closer the onlookers are to the individual who interests them, the more exposed his position (and theirs), and the more obligation they will feel to ensure him civil inattention. The further they are from him, the more license they will feel to stare at him a little.

(4). A notable observer of face-to-face conduct, the novelist William Sansom, disputes this point in "Happy Holiday Abroad," in A Contest of Ladies (London: Hogarth Press, 1956) , p. 228: [citation in notes]"Slowly he walked the length of the beach, pretending to saunter, studying each bather sideways from behind his black spectacles. One would think such dark glasses might. conceal the inquisitive eye: but Preedy knew better, he knew they do the Opposlte, as soon as they are swivelled anywhere near the object it looks like a direct hit. You cannot appear to glance just beyond with your dark guns on."
(5). See P. Binder, Muffs and Morals (New York: Morrow, n.d.) , Chap. 9, "Umbrellas, Walking-Sticks, and Fans," pp.178-196. The author suggests, p. 193: [citation in notes]"Another quizzing fan [in eighteenth-century England] had an inset of mica or gauze, so that a lady might cunningly use her fan as a lorgnette while her face appeared to be screened from view. This type of fan was intended for use at a risque play, where modesty required some equivalent to the earlier facemask."
Successful devices of this kind must incorporate three features: the user must be able to look at the other, be able to give the appearance of not being ashamed of being seen by the other, and be able to conceal that he is in fact spying. Children in Shetland Isle primary schools handle visiting strangers with something like a fan-but one that fails in the last two counts-by shyly hiding their faces behind their two hands while peeking out at the visitor from a crack between two fingers.


In addition to these evasions of rules we also may expect frequent infractions of them. Here, of course, social class subculture and ethnic subculture introduce differences in patterns, and differences, too, in the age at which patterns are first employed.

The morale of a group in regard to this minimal courtesy of civil inattention-a courtesy that tends to treat those present merely as participants in the gathering and not in terms of other social characteristics-is tested whenever someone of very divergent social status or very divergent physical appearance is present. English middle-class society, for example, prides itself in giving famous and infamous persons the privilege of being civilly disattended in public, as when the Royal children manage to walk through a park with few persons turning around to stare. And in our own American society, currently, we know that one of the great trials of the physically handicapped is that in public places they will be openly stared at, thereby having their privacy invaded, while, at the same time, the invasion exposes their undesirable attributes.(6)

(6) See the very useful paper by R.. K. White, B. A. Wright, and T. Dembo "Studies in Adjustment to Visible Injuries: Evaluation of Curiosity by the Injured, Journal of Abnomal and Social Psychology, 48 (1948), 18-28.

The act of staring is a thing which one does not ordinarily do to another human being; it seems to put the object stared at in a class apart. One does not talk to a monkey in a zoo, or to a freak in a sideshow--one only stares.(7)

(7) Ibid., p. 22.

[citation, continued.] An injury, as a characteristic and inseparable part tof the body,may be felt to be a personal matter which the man would like to keep private. However, the fact of its visibility makes it known to anyone whom the injured man meets, including the stranger. A visible Injury differs from most other personal matters in that anyone can deal with it regardless of the wish of the injured person; anyone can stare at the injury or ask questions about it, and in both cases communicate to and impose upon the injured person his feelings and evaluations. His action is then felt as an intrusion into -[p.87]- privacy. It is the visibility of the injury which makes intrusion into privacy so easy. The men are likely to feel that they have to meet again and again people who will question and stare, and to feel powerless because they cannot change the general state of affairs ... (8)[citation ends]

Perhaps the dearest illustration both of civil inattention and of the infraction of this ruling occurs when a person takes advantage of another's not looking to look at him, and then finds that the object of his gaze has suddenly turned and caught the illicit looker looking. The individual caught out may then shift his gaze, often with embarrassment and a little shame, or he may carefully act as if he had merely been seen in the moment of observation that is permissible; in either case we see evidence of the propriety that should have been maintained.

To behave properly and to have the right to civil inattention are related: propriety on the individual's part tends to ensure his being accorded civil inattention; extreme impropriety on his part is likely to result in his being stared at or studiously not seen. Improper conduct, however, does not automatically release others from the obligation of extending civil inattention to the offender, although it often weakens it. In any case, civil inattention may be extended in the face of offensiveness simply as an act of tactfulness, to keep an orderly appearance in the situation in spite of what is happening.

Ordinarily, in middle-class society, failure to extend civil inattention to others is not negatively sanctioned in a direct and open fashion, except in the social training of servants and children, the latter especially in connection with according civil inattention to the physically handicapped and deformed. For examples of such direct sanctions among adults one must turn to despotic societies where glancing at the emperor or his agents may be a punishable offense,(9) or to the rather refined rules prevailing in some of our Southern states concerning how much of a look a colored male can give to a white female, over how-[p.88]- much distance, before it is interpreted as a punishable sexual advance.(10)

(9). R.. K. Douglas, Society in China (London: Innes, 1894) , p. 11.
(10) 10. See, for example, the notable Webster-Ingram case reported November 12-13, 1952 (AP). In many societies in Africa and Asia, a similar taboo exists regarding glances that males cast females.

Given the pain of being stared at, it is understandable that staring itself is widely used as a means of negative sanction, socially controlling all kinds of improper public conduct. Indeed it often constitutes the first warning an individual receives that he is "out of line" and the last warning that it is necessary to give him. In fact, in the case of those whose appearance tests to the limit the capacity of a gathering to proffer civil inattention, staring itself may become a sanction against staring. The autobiography of an ex-dwarf provides an illustration:

[citation begins]
There were the thick-skinned ones, who stared like hill people come down to see a traveling show. There were the paper-peekers, the furtive kind who would withdraw blushing if you caught them at it. There were the pitying ones, whose tongue clickings could almost be heard after they had passed you. But even worse, there were the chatterers, whose every remark might as well have been "How do you do, poor boy?" They said it with their eyes and their manners and their tone of voice.
[citation continues]
I had a standard defense -- a cold stare. Thus anesthetized against my fellow man, I could contend with the basic problem -- getting in and out of the subway alive.(11)

(11)H. Viscardi, Jr., A Man's Stature (New York: John Day, 1952), p. 70, as cited in B. A. Wright, Physical Disability-A Psychological Approach (New York: Harper &: Bros., 1960), p. 214.

Cited from "Behavior in public places : notes on the social organization of gatherings." by Erving Goffman, Pp.83-88, New York: Free Press.


(c)Mitzub'ixi Quq Chi'j. Copy&wright[not rights] 2015

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