Unfocused Interaction

Reading a bit today from Goffman’s “Behavior in Public Places”. It reads a bit like a sociologist’s take on propriety and protocol which it is. That means Goffman is investigating social behaviors in order to develop a framework for understanding such behaviors and, thereby, learn more about how and why people conduct themselves the way they do. It’s full of examples and notes from the field, and puts a useful architecture around public behavior. He’s setting up a kind of taxonomy of the ways in which social beings interact amongst each other, mostly in public.

The section on “Unfocused Interaction” has a bit on body idioms, involvement and involvement shields. Interesting terms for the ways in which we use our bodies as a kind of language articulator, oftentimes purposefully, but, regardless, our bodily actions become a form of social communication. I was most taken by the idea of “involvement” and the “involvement shield.” One of the examples of the “involvement shield” Goffman uses (this was written in the late 50s and early 60s) is the fan a lady may use to shield a blush (or lack of a blush) or a newspaper put in front of a yawning mouth. This made me think of the ways in which people handle their mobile devices and the ways they may shield their engagement with the device. For instance, texting under a table or cupping a hand over a mouth+phone while trying to discretely communicate. Of course, there’s the opposite — the ostentatious bellowing into mobiles when such volume is completely unnecessary and unsheating a Blackberry with a flourish to dispatch a missive to a subordinate.

This made me think of a project Les Nelson presented ages ago at a seminar on mobile stuff at Xerox PARC. He had what I thought was a brilliant idea for a mobile phone that allowed you to handle a call without having to talk out loud. It’s usage context was something along the lines of being in a place where it wasn’t appropriate to talk (in a meeting, etc.) but for which the call was important. Your device would allow you to say the usual kinds of things you do when just listening to someone else — “uh huh”, “go on..”, “i’m here”, etc. Of course, the spread of SMS mitigates the challenge of communicating where voice isn’t appropriate — but it’s interesting to think about how the mobile device facilitates social communication in a myriad of contexts.

Why do I blog this? I’m trying to work through social behavior insights as a way to encourage my mind to think of some innovative possibilities for social mobile devices and usage scenarios. Understanding social practices broadly will, hopefully, help out.