We have built ourselves a lonely world but there are ways to forge the genuine human connections that we all need to flourish.

We live in a strange world. Consider the skill that many of us have carefully cultivated over years of city living of actively ignoring other people around us while hoping that those people will actively ignore us in return. 

Think about how you enter a lift in a busy shopping centre or an office building. Perhaps a quick glance at those already standing inside, a small shuffle to ensure you’re not standing too close to anyone else, a quick tap of the “open door” button to allow a latecomer to enter, a fleeting smile to acknowledge that they almost missed it, and then you diligently stare into space desperately hoping no-one starts a conversation. Some lifts even mercifully include little screens displaying the weather and news headlines that offer everyone inside a sink for their collective attention. 

This is a textbook example of what the Canadian sociologist Ervin Goffman called “civil inattention”. This is our tendency to actively not engage with those around us while not ignoring them entirely.  

Civil inattention enables us to ensconce ourselves in a protective bubble of anonymity even while we’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other people. It’s both a defence mechanism that prevents us from having to constantly expend social energy interacting with every individual we encounter while also being a social lubricant that allows millions of strangers to coexist in relative peace.  

The price of this unwritten social contract of non-engagement is loneliness. Indeed, it’s easier to feel isolated and disconnected from others in the middle of a bustling city than it is in a small town. 

And with the growth of high density living over the last several decades so too has loneliness spread, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Loneliness was already prevalent prior to the advent social distancing and enforced lockdowns, but recent surveys have revealed a sharp increase, with over half of respondents reporting they have experienced loneliness during the pandemic.  

Contrast the civilly inattentive world to the social world that our minds have evolved to expect. That is a world laced with rich social interaction, one where our very identities are interlaced with those around us. It’s a world that our ancestors dwelt in for thousands of generations, a world that shaped our minds, and one that only changed with the advent of high density living. 

The anthropologist Lorna Marshall vividly described the intimate connectedness among one small-scale society, the Nyae Nyae !Kung people of the Kalahari desert. 

“Their need to avoid loneliness, I think, is actually visible in the way families cluster together in their werfs and in the way people sit, often touching someone else, shoulder against shoulder, ankle across ankle. Comfort and security for them lie in belonging to their group, free from hostility or rejection,” she wrote. 

This is the world where belonging is a given and it’s almost impossible to be alone. It’s the world that many modern folk seek out through social media, popular culture, the bustle of city life or even religion. These give the trappings of connectedness but they’re all ultimately based on illusion. What we yearn for is the opposite of loneliness: genuine connection. 

The good news is that there are ways to build genuine connection. One way to do so is just by having better conversations.  

You can think about Goffman’s civil inattention as being a mask of civility that we wear in public that presents the face that society expects us to have but also covers our deeper self. It’s a defence mechanism but it’s also a barrier to genuine connection. 

We can see this in many of the conversations we have with friends and colleagues, where we’re expected to talk about how well we’re doing, about our successes and triumphs. This tendency is only amplified on social media, where we have even greater opportunity – and expectation – to curate a positive image or flex about our privilege (#blessed).  

But to really connect with someone, we need to go beyond our respective masks to reach the whole person underneath, including their strengths and their vulnerabilities, their successes and their failures, their hopes as well as their fears. It’s in the mutual recognition that we’re all complex and flawed beings, often stumbling our way through life, that we can build genuine connection.

This doesn’t mean we should be opening up to strangers about our greatest blunders in a lift, but it does mean allowing ourselves to lower the mask a little at a time around friends, acknowledging some of our vulnerabilities and helping them to feel comfortable doing the same. It means asking questions about more than just what they did on the weekend or which footy team won or lost. It means asking how they felt about it, what they hope for, what they regret or what they learnt. And it means shutting up and really listening to them, withholding judgement and validating how they feel. 

You might be surprised at how quickly a good conversation, one where you lower your mask even a little, can build a connection that is meaningful and lasting. Sharing a little of our deeper self and getting to know a little of others’ deeper selves can feel confronting, it can challenge societal norms of what polite conversations look like, but they are also one of the greatest – and easiest – antidotes to loneliness. I call it “uncivil attention”.