In the subway, at the laundromat, in public libraries, even in the restroom—the seemingly asocial spaces of modern life—we are constantly, silently negotiating with strangers. Half-glances, polite smiles, unconscious sidesteps. In 1963, the sociologist Erving Goffman coined a term for this quiet discourse: civil inattention.
While civil inattention’s specific gestures—a quick, open gaze across the swimming pool, a pursing of the lips down the train aisle—can differ depending on the unacquainted and their settings, the intention remains the same: to acknowledge a stranger’s presence, and then to withdraw.
Earlier agrarian societies, organized in small communities where everyone knew everyone in town, could require newcomers at the village gates to explain themselves.
“Co-presence without co-mingling, awareness without engrossment, courtesy without conversation,” writes sociologist Lyn Lofland in a 1989 paper describing an idea that sparked a generation of behavioral studies.
One study of civil inattention in elevators found that half of all riders directed an initial, understated once-over toward their lift-mates. Those who offered no glance, or gazed too long, made other riders uncomfortable. Social theorist Zygmunt Bauman speculates in a 1993 book that we subconsciously execute these maneuvers to establish that we come in peace, and depend on anonymous passersby to respond in kind.
Bauman notes that earlier agrarian societies, organized in small communities where everyone knew everyone in town, could require newcomers at the village gates to explain themselves. With four out of five Americans now living in urbanized areas, civil inattention might be a vital risk-management practice. Mark Twain once described New York City as “a splendid desert—a domed and steepled solitude, where the stranger is lonely in the midst of a million of his race.” Today, the subtle back-and-forth between strangers may be, as Lofland puts it, “the absolute sine qua non of city life.”