civil inattention

There is a term that sociologists use to describe the unspoken social contract that occurs in many different cultures: civil inattention.* It describes how we behave as pedestrians and in public spaces to maintain personal distance, physical or emotional, at any given moment; depending on one’s mood, one might switch from a nod, a smile, a friendly greeting, to un-acknowledgement. It’s how we negotiate city life.

In Vancouver, much as in other cities, as two pedestrians walk towards each other, they’ll eye each other from a distance and as they approach, they may, or may not, make eye contact, nod, or greet each other with a ‘hi’ or ‘good morning.’ Sometimes it’s as plain as day that no interaction is desired. Sometimes I get the signals wrong, I’ll greet someone and get nothing back. Makes you feel invisible. Often times, it feels like it’s a “Vancouver special” to ignore the existence of neighbours and of bodies walking by.

Last fall, at an artist Zoom talk, I was surprised how openly a Jewish (or Palestinian?) artist now living in Vancouver clearly expressed how he felt about Vancouverite’s preference to make believe you do not exist. He found it so disconcerting and alienating. In my experience, and I’m sure that artist would agree, this lack of simple daily acknowledgement can lead to feelings of isolation, especially on rainy and gloomy Vancouver days. Perhaps, if you are not of this place (as I am and am not), you notice it and feel it more, and you shouldn’t be blamed for thinking that Vancouver’s social contract feels like UNcivil inattention.

Unless you’re a very anti-social type, I don’t think you can ever get used to being invisible. I do wonder how good (bad?) it feels to live in a culture were interaction is avoided such as in Denmark (apparently). Imagine missing your bus stop because you absolutely do not want to say ‘Excuse me’ to be able to get out of the bus!*

Towns and cities where I’ve enjoyed the social contract include: Antigua in Guatemala (population 46,000+), Oaxaca City in Mexico (population 300,000+), and Corozal in Belize (population 10,000+), all places where people acknowledge each other with a greeting, as simple as ‘buenos días’ or ‘good morning’ (in Corozal). There’s also the smile and the tone with which those words are delivered that make those places stand out in my memory.

The population for the city of Vancouver is 675,000+ (2017). Maybe size matters, the speed of growth (which is pretty fast in Vancouver), as well as the amount of mobility—within the city, the country, and the world. The effects of mobility…is a subject for another research note.

*I came across this term and the reference to Denmark in reading Kio Stark’s book “When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform you”, 2016, pages 57-63.