Admitting one’s faults and coming clean with another about a wrongdoing is one of the most difficult forms of interaction. The timing of the disclosure never seems to be right and the speaking plan developed by the guilty rarely remains on script. As communication researchers, we can account for this because we know the old sender-message-receiver model no longer represents a true explanation of the communication process; variables such as feedback, environment, and non-verbal communication influences the direction of a conversation.
While we are certain that these variables exist and influence real-time interaction, I feel we pay less attention to the step that comes before the conversation: motive. The act of coming clean usually qualifies as a “game changing performance,” so what comes before the confession? As one who has filled the role of sender, receiver, and active onlooker of coming-clean conversations, I ask, what motivates negative self-disclosure?
In his research of human behavior, Erving Goffman (1963) uses the term civil inattention to refer to the act that occurs when one gives another, “enough visible notice to demonstrate that one appreciates that he other is present (Goffman, 84).” It is a brief moment that serves as an act of civility. Yes, Goffman’s work is based on public interactions, but I believe the concept may be applied to close relationships that are experiencing their demise.
Over a period of time, bad things happen to good relationships, causing close relationships to morph into a prolonged act of civility where both partners go through the motions of “being civil” while they both know that the actual closeness that resides between them is disintegrating. I argue that Goffman’s civil inattention can apply to closeness that is in the process of reverting back to standards we reserve for public interaction due to its lack of intimacy. Perhaps this type of false attention toward a person one cares about is an extended form of motive?
I believe that civil inattention, when applied to close relationships, can serve as a catalyst to the coming-clean conversation. Though both participate in mutual civil inattention, it may be more likely that the guilty actor will initiate disclosure. I argue that coming-clean is fueled by personal motivations. Feelings of frustration or self- hatred often instigate disclosure, yet we are conditioned to believe that coming-clean is “for the good of us both.” When examining relational downfall, it is important to look not just at the act but what motivates admission.
Erving Goffman. Behavior in Public Places. Free Press, 1963