Anyone who has sat in an airport or on a park bench for hours, watching the mini-dramas of everyday life going on all around them, knows the endless fascination with observing human behavior. In a restaurant or across a hotel lobby; sitting on a bus, in a car, in traffic; gazing out your office window; waiting in line – really anywhere at all, people-watching has got to be humankind’s favorite sport.
Maybe it’s just natural curiosity. We want to know what’s going on with other people. What is she thinking? What is he feeling? What’s happening? Sometimes we make up stories about the people we observe – this one’s in love and that one has just been through tragedy. It’s fun, it’s imaginative, but it’s hardly reliable.
If you want to know what’s actually going on, what state another person is in, and how you can best engage the other’s interest, you have to pay attention to certain behavioral indicators. We do have an amazing capacity for this. We can detect the slightest deviations, the smallest changes in someone’s tone of voice, facial expression or way of walking. We can recognize a mood on the phone in an instant or we can see it half a block away in the gait of a person moving toward us.
I can’t read your mind, but I can have a good idea of what kind of mood or state you’re in, or which way your thoughts are tending, by looking and listening for certain behavioral indicators. I observe what you do with your body, your voice, the movement of your eyes, all the minutiae of your behavior that you may not be aware of. If they know what to look and listen for, these indicators send out a message for anyone to see and hear.
People-watching is knowing how to read another person, what to pay attention to, what specific behaviors reveal a person’s state of mind or feeling. People-watching indicates a state of alertness, like a cat’s tensed posture, measuring the movements of a bird in the leaves, or the dog’s vigilant nose sniffing out the directions of the prey. It’s a focusing of the conscious mind on another person and a willingness or curiosity to take in all the clues, signs, and data that the other person gives out, without making interpretations or judgments – simply observing, getting information.
People-watching is simply looking at and listening to what’s already there, right in front of you. Like bubbles on the surface of the pond, these behaviors are obvious if you take the time to notice them. All you have to do is pay attention long enough. Suddenly there it is, obvious as billboards, the person is telling and showing you what he or she is thinking behind the words.
Our lives are only as big as our capacity to consider others. When our capacity to be thoughtful begins and ends with ourselves, or the few people upon whom we depend, we occupy a painfully small universe. What’s more, we remain infantile. And this get less and less attractive the older we grow.
Eight hundred years before 20th century physicians came up with evidence for the interconnectedness of life, 12th century artist and abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote, "All things in this world are arranged in consideration of everything else. Everything that is in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, is penetrated with connectedness, is penetrated with relatedness.”
Through people-watching and considering others, we benefit.