The Urban Flaneur

We all know them: people who sit in the crowded carriage with loud bass thumping out of their earphones. A year ago I decided to observe and document my fellow travellers’ reactions. I can report that not once did anyone ask for the music to be turned down.  Most of the time I was in fact left wondering whether my stony faced fellow travellers had either gone deaf or, unlike me, actually quite enjoyed the early morning commuting soundtrack.

My experiment was inspired by research carried out a couple of years ago by two academics who went about categorising responses to everyday incivility in Melbourne.[1]They asked a mixed group of just over fifty people to recount specific incidents of uncivil behaviour – from road rage to bad language. In all of these cases they went on to probe respondents’ reactions. These were subsequently categorised according to four traits: ‘disgust’ (aversive behaviour) , ‘sanction’ (reaction, often angry, against the perpetrators), ‘withdrawal’ (taking action to minimise contact) and ‘do-nothing’  (ignore and take for granted).

The overall aim of the research was to challenge the dominating discourse about everyday incivility and its links with rising levels of fear of crime (the study was carried out the time when Tony Blair and other high-profile politicians declared all out war on anti-social behaviour). In their words, they wanted to test the “belief that disorder threatens social civility more widely, chipping away at public life in the street, shrinking defensible spaces and progressively eliminating the vigilant guardianship of watchful eyes.”

Their analysis showed that people are most likely to exhibit outrage or sanction incivility when they experience it themselves, particularly when they feel ‘disrespected’ or humiliated. Meanwhile, they are much less likely to respond when they are onlookers witnessing an act of incivility on someone else.  The ‘blase’ responses were the most common overall – people either doing nothing or averting their attention away from the incidents but not actually taking action to remove themselves (confirming the findings of my headphone experiment in the London Underground). But overall fear in the shape of ‘withdrawal’ (people taking active steps to avoid the experiences of incivility) fared badly, leading them to conclude that it is just “one outcome of a broader array.” They therefore challenge what they call the “fear paradigm” calling for a more “comprehensive approach that maps a range of emotions and behavioural responses and interrogates how these might coalesce with the full spectrum of uncivil acts from minor transgression of the normative order through to more serious crimes.”

In the final sections of the paper the authors pose an important question. They ask whether, contrary to the expressed concerns about passive citizens who let others get away with incivility, intervention (particularly of the outraged kind) is in fact desirable. Couldn’t it counterproductively “lead to a spiral of increasing distrust, misunderstanding and violence between parties” putting individuals at risk, and in this way increase perception of disorder? Isn’t in fact the management of anger desirable and more conducive to healthy and orderly social life?

On the final lap of my experiment I decided to test the validity of their conclusion by means of a second experiment: I would tap the next commuting music lover on the shoulder and politely ask him or her to please turn down their music. She seemed confused and unbelieving at first, but soon she turned very angry. My response in turn was fear which could have quickly turned into withdrawal.

 But contrary to what the researchers in Melbourne found, this was not the case for my fellow travellers. The carriage was soon transformed. Three fellow travellers, including a very young girl and an elderly man, came swiftly to my defence. Ultimately my music lover was subdued and embarrassed.

It seems that the episode added yet another dimension to the dynamics of civility in our collective lives: the influence of shared adversity.

[1] Emotional and behaviouyal responses to everyday incivility: challenging the fear/ avoidance paradigm , Phillips T and Smith P, Journal of Sociology, Volume 40(4)


About Phoebe Griffith

My work is as a writer and policy advisor. My interests are in the dynamics that make our increasingly complex, fast-paced, diverse cities work - from the emergence of new codes of civility in an age of invasive technology to the future of the developing world's mega-cities. I grew up in Lima (Peru) and am now bringing up a family in the heart of West London (UK).
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