Talking on the phone with a bluetooth headset in public spaces creates lots of awkward moments. In this essay, Nathan Palmer uses these funny moments to illustrate what sociologists call civil inattention and the unspoken rules of public conversations.
“Hi, can I ask you a question?” said the man next to me out of nowhere. I was seated in those brutally uncomfortable airport chairs waiting to board my flight. Looking up from my phone our eyes locked and I gave a small polite smile, cocked my head a little to the side, pursed my lips, and popped my eyebrows up. “Sure, what can I help you with?” Immediately he looked to the floor, threw his hand up with his pointer finger to the sky and said, “Hold on. Sorry, can you hold on a second, some guy is trying to talk to me at the airport.”
He dropped his hand and when we made eye contact. “Can I help you with something buddy? Can’t you see that I’m on the phone?” With his head turned I could fully see the disdain on his face and the flash of light on the tiny plastic bluetooth headset I hadn’t noticed he was wearing. My blood boiled. Like people fleeing a burning theater, dozens of snarky comebacks all tried at once to force their way out of my mouth. “Uh, what? Wait you’re the one who said- Look I’m not the one,” before I could dislodge my thoughts he put his hand back in my face. “Listen bro, I don’t know what to tell ya. Why don’t you go find someone who’s not on the phone.” He grabbed his things and while walking away I couldn’t hear everything he said, but I could clearly make out the words weirdo, rude, manners and the phrase “some people.”
Well, Mr. Bluetooth, you do not know who you messed with. I am a passive aggressive sociologist with a blog. You may think you got the last word (because you did), but I’ll show you. In fact, I’m going to show everyone why I think it’s jerky to talk on your bluetooth in public places and then get in a huff when people think you’re talking to them. And believe it or not, I’m going to do all of that while teaching folks a little something about sociology.
Dealing with Strangers in Public
Imagine how impossible daily life would be if you had to stop, make eye contact, and deeply connect with every person you passed by when walking through public places. None of us would ever make it to where we were headed. Instead, as a society we have created a social status we call “strangers” and a protocol for how to treat them which sociologists call “civil inattention.”
One core lesson of sociology is that we treat people differently based on their statuses. In this example, people with the status of stranger are treated differently than say people with the status family member. When we come across strangers we abide by a set of interaction rules that are widely known, but rarely formally taught.
For instance, strangers abide by the, “glance, but don’t look” rule. It’s socially acceptable to quickly scan the people around you, but prolonged looking communicates to others that you either know them personally, you want to start an interaction with them, or you are a creep. Sociologists Erving Goffman calls this civil inattention: the act of pretending to ignore people while you take notice of them.
Prolonged eye contact is one example of what is called an opening which are subtle cues we use to alert others we want to start interacting with them. Openings can be verbal cues (e.g. “Excuse me, but…”) or physical cues (e.g. waving or raising your hand). In public we expect others to maintain civil inattention until they have successfully executed an opening.
When people make phone calls in public places, they expect that those around them will maintain civil inattention. Even if they are practically shouting mere inches from a stranger’s ear (!). Until recently, people on the phone could be easily identified by their bent arm and hand pressing their phone to their face. Bluetooth headsets are awkward situation generators because they remove these contextual cues and make it easy to misinterpret openings.
A Tale of Two Realities
At the airport that day, I was minding my own and doing civil inattention. When I heard an opening near me I followed protocol; I located the source of the opening and returned it in kind. That was my reality.
From Mr. Bluetooth’s perspective he never broke civil inattention. He took a call, performed an opening to initiate the phone conversation, and then was rudely interrupted by some geeky stammering yahoo. Mr. Bluetooth assumed that because he was aware of his earpiece, everyone else was too. That was his reality.
Mr. Bluetooth expects passers by to be immediately aware of his earpiece and understand his behaviors within the “I’m on the phone” context. When strangers fail to do so, Mr. Bluetooth becomes upset. He lives in a world where he is repeatedly misunderstood by those around him. While I had to suffer the discomfort of one interaction with Mr. Bluetooth, he is doomed to a life filled with awkwardness and the discontent of never feeling truly understood. Heavy is the head that wears the bluetooth.
- Have you ever been walking in a public space and made eye contact with someone you know, but they are too far away to start interacting with them? Chances are if you have, you looked away and didn’t make eye contact again until they were close enough to start a conversation. You might have even said something ridiculous like, “Oh I didn’t see you there,” when everyone knows that you totally did. Use the concepts of civil inattention and openings to explain the individuals’ behavior in this scenario.
- Reread the author’s description of his interaction with Mr. Bluetooth. What verbal or physical cues did the two men give one another to communicate and direct the flow of the conversation? List at least two examples and then explain what each cue is intended to communicate.
- The opposite of openings are closings. These are subtle cues we use to communicate that we are ready to end an interaction. Create a list of at least five closings people commonly use in your community.
- As a symbol what does the bluetooth headset communicate? What image does it give off? What might it tell us about the wearer?