Social Interaction and Meaning
When you are with other people. do you often won Because most of liS are concerned about the meanings that others ascribe to our ehavior. we try to interpret their words and actions so that we can plan how we will react toward them (Blumer, 1969). We know that others have expectations of us. We also have certain expectations about them. For example. if we enter an elevator that has only one other person in it. we do not expect that individual to confront us and stare into our eyes. As a matter of fact, we would be quite upset if the person did so. Social interaction within a given society has certain shared meanings across situations. For instance, our reaction would be the same regardless of which elevator we rode in which building. Sociologist Erving Goffman (l963b) described these shared meanings in his observation about two pedestrians approaching each other on a public sidewalk. He noted that each will tend to look at the other just long enough to acknowledge the other's presence. By the time they are about eight feet away from each other, both individuals will tend to look downward. Goffman referred to this behavior as civil illtlttention-the ways in which an individual shows an awareness that another is present without making this person the object of particular attention. The fact that people engage in civil inattention demonstrates that interaction does have a pattern, or, interaction order. which regulates the form and processes (but not the content) of social interaction.
Does everyone interpret social interaction rituals in the same way? No. Race/ethnicity, gender, and social class playa part in the meanings we give to our interactions with others, including chance encounters on elevators or the. street Our perceptions about the meaning of a situation vary widely based on the statuses we occupy and our unique personal experiences, For example, sociologist Carol Brooks Gardner (I989) found that women frequently do not perceive street encounters to be "routine" rituals. They fear for their personal safety and try to avoid comments and propositions that are sexual in nature when they walk down the street. African Americans may also feel uncomfortable in street encounters. A middle-class African American college student described his experiences walking home at night from a campus job:
So, even if you wanted to, it's difficult just to live a life where you don't come into conflict with others.... Every day that you live as a black person you're reminded how you're perceived in society. You walk the streets at night; white people cross the streets. I've seen white couples and individuals dart in front of cars to not be on the same side of the street. Just the other day, I was walking down the street, and this white female with a child, I saw her pass a young white male about 20 yards ahead. When .she saw me, she quickly dragged the child and herself across the busy street ... [When I pass,] white men tighten their grip on their women. I've seen people turn around and seem like they're going to take blows from me.... So, every day you realize [you're black]. Even though you're not duing anything wrong; you're just existing. You're just a person. But you're a black person perceived in an unblack world. (qtd. in Feagin, 1991: 111-112)
As this passage indicates, social encounters have different meanings for men and women, whites and people of color, and individuals from different social classes. Members of the dominant classes regard the poor, unemployed, and working class as less worthy of attention, frequently subjecting them to subtle yet systematic "attention deprivation" (Derber, 1983). The same can certainly be said about how members of the dominant classes "interact" with the homeless . qucJinc Wiseman (1970) in her study of "Pacific City's" skid row. She wanted to know how people who live or work on skid row (a run-down area found in all cities) felt about it Wiseman found that homeless persons living on skid row evaluated it very differently from lhe social workers who dealt with them there. On the one hand, many of the social workers "saw' skid row as a smelly, depressing area filled with men who were "down-and-out," alcoholic, and often physically and mentally iJI. On the other hand, the men who lived on skid row did not see it in such a negative light. They experienced some degree of satisfaction with their "bottle clubs [and a) remarkably indomitable and creative spirit"-at least initially (Wiseman, 1970: 18). As this study shows, we define situations from our own frame of reference, based on the statuses that we occupy and the roles that we play. Dominant-group members with prestigious statuses may have the ability to establish how other people define "reality" (Berger and Luckmann, 1967 109). Some sociologists have suggested that dominant groups, particularly higher-income white males in powerful economic and political statuses, perpetuate their own world view through ideologies that arefrequently seen as "social reality." For example, the sociologist
Dorothy E. Smith (1999) points out that the term "Standard North American Family' (meaning a heterosexual two- parent family) is an ideological code promulgated by the dominant group to identify how people's family lite should be arranged. According to Smith (J 999), this code plays a powerful role in determining how people in organizations such as the government and schools believe that a family should be. Likewise, the sociologist Patricia Hill Collins (1998) argues that "reality" may be viewed differently by African American women and other historically oppressed.