Interactional Rituals: Civil inattention


One reason why Covidiotism attracts so much attention and strong feeling is that social distancing and its violations are strongly related to what the renowned sociologist Erving Goffman has described as the phenomenon of ‘civil inattention’. In modern public spaces, particularly in urban settings, a key interactional ritual is to keep interaction to a minimum. For instance, when sitting on a crowded bus, we are expected to pretend that we do not notice the person sitting next to us. While the interactional ritual of civil inattention is very often ‘passive’ in nature (more specifically, we have to actively avoid engaging in interactional activities), it may also be manifested in interactional rituals that are meant to be minimal in nature. For instance, if we wish to get off the bus and need to pass by another passenger, we might look at him/her, smile, nod or give some other minimal signs of acknowledgment, possibly even engaging in a short verbal exchange by uttering ‘excuse me’.

In the context of social distancing, ‘civil inattention’ has, essentially, changed: while we are still supposed to ritually pretend that we do not notice other people in public spaces, as part of this pretence we are also expected to ritually display an awareness of the other person’s safety, by keeping the required physical distance from him/her. This new ritual may be manifested in a set of new interactional practices, such as tactfully stepping aside in a seemingly casual way when the other person approaches us, hence allowing him/her to pass by safely. Just as in normal, non-COVID-19 times, the rites of civil inattention that are adhered to during social distancing may involve verbal encounters: for instance, we may smile and murmur ‘sorry’ or ‘hi’ if we need to pass through another person’s safety zone. Such encounters take place more often than we would imagine – we only have to think of the familiar scene of two dog walkers simultaneously walking along a narrow alley. While, in these cases, the level of ritual inattention is increased compared to normal circumstances, the essence of the behaviour displayed in public spaces remains the same during social distancing: we are expected to keep the attention we pay the other person to a minimum. This is why overdoing the attention we pay the other person – for example, making an exaggerated jump to move out of the way when he/she comes too close – is regarded as being offensive during these COVID-19 times.

We often evaluate other people as covidiots because we perceive them trespassing our right to civil inattention. In this respect, civil inattention is a fully-fledged ritual despite being minimally interactional in nature: as with any ritual, it embodies rights and obligations, and its violation triggers a strong sense of offence. In other words, offence does only emerge when we are ‘good citizens’ by avoiding social contact, a scenario we discussed earlier in this blog series, but also when we ‘force’ the other person to interact with us by straying too close to him/her.

The Research featured in the blog was supported by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Momentum Grant (LP2017/5)

Politeness, Impoliteness and Ritual by Daniel Z. Kada

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About the Author: Dániel Z. Kádár

Daniel Z. Kadar (D.Litt, FHEA, PhD) is Research Professor and Head of Research Centre at the Research Institute for Linguistics, Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He is author/editor of 25 books published by internationally leading publishing houses, and he has also published a large number of academic papers in high-impact international journals. His...

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About the Author: Juliane House

Juliane House received her PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Toronto and Honorary Doctorates from the Universities of Jyväskylä and Jaume I, Castellon. She is Professor Emerita, Hamburg University and is currently affiliation as Visiting Professor at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She is co-editor of the Brill journal Contras...

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