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Wayne Mellinger: Cell Phones and Civility, and the Emergence of ‘Uncivil Inattention’ in Public Life

The people around us in public places are increasingly physically present while being socially absent. They are, in a sense, both simultaneously” there” and “not there.”

The popularization of cell phones, laptops, iPods and the like has drastically transformed the nature of the norms of acceptable behavior in public places. While people might be sharing our immediate social space, they have often substantially removed themselves from the possibility of social interaction.

I am apprehensive about ranting on too much about the “decline of civility” in modern public life, as I see a change in normative behavior. Yet, I am fearful for what these changes might portend for the health of a robust public sphere and participatory democratic polity.

Everywhere I go I find people tethered to electronic devices, which keep them connected to their known social worlds, but detached from the social occasions in which their bodies reside. We are experiencing a period in which the norms of civility are changing, and it is unclear what is now acceptable. You decide.

There was the young business executive who recently walked into my coffee shop so engaged in talking on his cellphone that he skipped exchanging brief pleasantries with the barista and instead opted to simply point to what he wanted, never missing a beat in his telephone conversation. He paid for his purchase without ever saying a word to the barista.

Then, there was the young woman updating her Facebook status during the part of the church service I attend in which everybody else is standing, holding hands and “calling out a blessing.” While the rest of the congregation was celebrating a true moment of shared community, this person chose to remain seated, fingers plucking away at the iPhone screen.

And then, there are those ubiquitous cellphone users who force everyone around them to hear the most intimate aspects of their lives — including nasty spats with their romantic partners, their partner’s recitation of the grocery shopping lists, and the cancellation of their psychiatric appointments.

Rather than merely sound like an older “conservative” deriding the “bad” behavior of the younger generations I have opted here to be an anthropologist of the social order more focused on observing changes in our daily rituals and ceremonies.

Modern humans living in our urban environments have a range of social bonds with others, from those with whom we are intimate, to those who are our acquaintances, to those with whom we are strangers. While we spend our days in social worlds replete with acquaintances, people are, in reality, more and more alone. More people live alone today than in any other previous point in our nation’s history.

Perhaps our need to stay connected to those few people we truly trust, has led us to detach from others in our social world. Our incessant use of our cellphones, Facebook and email might allow us to sustain and strengthen these bonds while simultaneously eroding our civility with strangers.

How does this represent a change in our behavior in public places?

Writing during the 1960s and ‘70s, sociologist Erving Goffman mapped the contours of social interaction among the middle class of North America. He emphasized that when an individual enters a social occasion they are obliged to “fit in.”

Goffman describes in detail the rules about “the allocation of involvement” in public settings, noting the dangers of over- and under-involvement. People must keep their behavior “in tune with the ethos” of the social encounter.

To show respect for the gathering, “the individual is obliged to ‘come into play’ upon entering the situation and to stay ‘in play’ while in the situation.” While someone may become engaged in “subordinate activity,” Goffman observed in this historical juncture that the norm was that those activities should not remove us from the social situation altogether.

To remove oneself from the social situation, to not demonstrate presence, would have been perceived as sending a message to others that they are “non-persons.”

What seems to have changed most significantly in the last 20 years concerns our treatment of strangers in public places. Previously, it was the polite norm for strangers to quickly glance at one another and then look away.

Through this ritual, which Goffman calls “civil inattention,” we demonstrate that we recognize the other person’s presence, are not seeking a sustained interaction, and have no hostile intention.

To not give someone the courtesy of “civil inattention,” in Goffman’s formulation of the subject matter, was to treat them as a “nonperson” — “to treat others as if they were not there at all, as objects not worthy of a glance, let alone close scrutiny.”

It is my contention that we have seen a rapid shift in what is the norm in middle-class American society. Increasingly, it is the norm for people to be in public places, earphones on their heads, fingers occupied with their electronic devices, and eyes averting any contact with others. It now seems to be acceptable for strangers in public places to give each other “uncivil inattention” — we are so preoccupied with what we’re doing that we need not even glance up to acknowledge the presence of others.

Within the last 20 years, with the massive popularization of cellphones and other electronic devices, “society” has seemingly decided to change these norms. For the sake of greater accessibility and convenience, it is now increasingly acceptable to be “out of contact” with the social occasion so that one can be “in contact” with your caller, or your Facebook page or with your streaming music. We are becoming increasingly desensitized to our physical presence in social occasions. The physical world has become but a “backdrop” to our actions.

Clearly, issues of status, power and entitlement enter into our public displays of uncivil inattention. If I feel that I am connecting with people outside of this room who are a lot “cooler” than the people here, why should I pay any mind to these folks here?

Not only is hospitality to strangers a virtue that is promoted by every ancient wisdom tradition, it is essential to a healthy civic life and political democracy. Why should we remain open to encounters with strangers and even reach out to them? Strangers have perspectives on the world we need to understand if we are going to see the whole picture. Their “otherness” can enlarge and revitalize our lives.

Moreover, the more we get to know the stranger, the more we feel at home on this planet. Our fear of otherness is usually reduced or removed when we meet face to face with people who represent that form of otherness.

Once we have learned someone’s name, that person becomes our kin. Once we have learned that person’s story, then it becomes embedded in our heart. As we become their companion, we often learn more from them than we have taught. I find that their kindness to me is typically greater than mine to them.

Unknown others might have something important to offer us — new information we need to make an important decision, a substantially different perspective on an issue we have never encountered, or even a joyful song that will warm our heart. To be closed off from the strangers around us might truly lessen our lives.

When we are in public spaces, there are so many good reasons for us to remain open to social engagement and the possibility of talking to an unknown other. For when we do exchange names and smiles, we open our hearts and practice true democracy, allowing otherness to expand our universe.

So, next time you’re in a coffee shop, in a church service, or standing in line at the grocery store, put aside your electronic devices. There might be some really cool people right around you.

— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).

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