Civil inattention on public transport during a pandemic

After moving to Manchester I now find myself using public transport on a daily basis for the first time in years. It’s felt strange after rarely taking buses in my five years in Cambridge and only occasionally setting foot on trains during the pandemic. I’ve noticed I feel extremely awkward on busy trams and it occurred to me this morning that I’ve lost the capacity for what Erving Goffman calls civil inattention. This is how he defines the concept on pg 84 of Behaviour in Public Places:

The problematization of proximity during the pandemic has left me hyper-conscious of others being close to me in an enclosed space. I’m not (consciously) anxious at this stage in the pandemic. If I don’t feel safe I put on a FFP2/FFP3 mask which I have in my bag rather than the surgical masks I usually use, which I’m confident I know how to fit on my face in a reasonably sealed way. Nonetheless I remain intensely aware of other people being around me and the “interpersonal rituals” which diffuse this awareness no longer feel habitual. It’s a strange experience which I’m not sure how to address because these subtle adjustments to other people are by their nature difficult to enact consciously, as opposed to being embodied responses in which we harmonise our comportment with that of the people around us.

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