Saulsman: Looking through your peers: an epidemic

You’re crossing the street on Euclid Avenue, speed-walking up the Binary Walkway. You might have headphones in, your friends might be talking your ear off, or you may just be walking silently, enjoying the serenity of white noise as you bustle your way to class.

Whatever you are doing, do you notice with whom you are sharing your path? Are you aware that these people have emotions, classes, relationships, lives of their own? Of course you are.  You may recognize a face or two in the crowd, acknowledging with them a smile, a nod, a wave. As for everyone else, you know they exist, but you don’t give them the same nod, the same attention you would if you knew them. This action of not acknowledging fellow passersby is not malicious.

In fact, by naming this phenomenon “civil inattention”, sociologist Erving Goffman defines it as courteous and polite in its nature. In today’s society, it is completely normal to ignore a stranger in public for a variety of personal or societal reasons, none of which have to be hostile.  

However, by looking through people in public situations, are we denying them their right to be acknowledged? Do we use the fact that we do not know them to justify not having to communicate with them? Humans are naturally social beings. Why, then, are we so apt to not socialize?

Civil inattention has morphed into something that is known and accepted but not acknowledged. We are conscious that we ignore people. When we walk down the street, and someone is coming the opposite direction, we feel a slight tightness. “Uh oh, what if she decides to smile at me. Should I smile first? Oh, she is avoiding eye contact. I should, too.”

The encounter has passed without either one of us actively acknowledging the other is there. We know the other is there, for our human brains are too alert for us to not realize another person’s presence. Yet in order to keep the peace, in order to avoid an awkward situation, we consciously walk past the other person without any sort of communication.

Here, at Case Western Reserve University, a school with a relatively small population, it should bother us that we, as a community of hardworking students, blatantly ignore each other in passing. We eat together, we live together, we learn together. Yet for some reason, to acknowledge another CWRU student in passing is awkward and has the pressures of being identified as weird or, for lack of a better term, “extra.”

In contrast to a large and crowded city, our little town of CWRU has room for casual interaction. College is a place to learn and grow and push yourself to your limits. As a place where thousands of young adults come to before stepping into the realm of ultimate reality, college should be a place where civil inattention should not exist. We should experience awkward encounters with strangers, pushing ourselves socially as well as academically.

CWRU students are all doing the same thing: we are paying to learn and to further our knowledge. Let’s acknowledge this and each other. I pose this challenge to you: when you see anyone on campus, shoot them a smile, a nod or any kind of gesture to show them you are aware of them. Let us, as a research university, study the impacts of a community without civil inattention.