The art of people watching

People-watching: Idle observation of people in a public space, as a way of passing time. (OED)

Well, the Oxford Dictionary went quite off-kilter by accusing my favourite café pastime of being merely idle. Yes, I would like to avoid my work by taking up the opportunity to watch others get on with their own squiggling and convoluted lives, but, no, it is not without purpose or pointless. 

I’m encompassed by how some of the most sought-after seats in the coffee shops where one could pull out a laptop and nest in for a few hours are usually the ones where you can perfectly people-watch without “the people” watching you right back. There is always the huge slab of glass separating those within from the external forces of sonder at Black Sheep, or that wonderful bird’s-eye view you can indulge in four stories up at Café W. You might even take a break from the people watching and eavesdrop at Blackwell’s Caffè Nero since, yes, we can hear everything you’re saying from across the room. It is a beautiful orchestral hubbub when there are multiple chords of conversation I can secretly listen to from afar. 

People watching is a beautiful name to christen upon disassociation. A rose by any other name would not smell as sweet as what it feels to cloak your insanity with a new socially acceptable norm. But that’s neither here nor there, it is actually through this weird looking glass where I can watch “life” pass me by like a dog slumped in front of the settee waiting for its owner to come home. Oh, to be a dog, able to heckle at the characters prancing past – I never look away faster than when the characters break the fourth wall, making awkward eye contact. People watching is a god send for the socially anxious to avoid interacting with these people that appear to be bursting with energy. 

I never look away faster than when the characters break the fourth wall, making awkward eye contact.

There is just something so soothing about one’s own stillness amongst the chaos around you, like when you’re standing in the middle of King’s Cross watching every fourth person running to the platform, only to miss their train. You may be wondering what it is that I see or observe that is so tantalisingly satisfying to my ADHD brain. Well yes, I see people, and I see many of them, but, no, it’s not just that.

You can read this person’s quick paced movement as they are on a mission, powerfully walking up St Aldate’s in full focus about to slay the day away. All the people are just so different that you get to see their quirks and pretend that you can read another human by their appearance. People watching is humbling as you realise that you know nothing about other people’s complex lives – you’re just an onlooker. 

To quote Conan Gray’s song People Watching, “I wanna feel all that love and emotion/ Be that attached to the person I’m holding/ Someday, I’ll be falling without caution/ But, for now, I’m only people watching”. People watching is like being a little parasite, sucking vicariously onto others’ emotions while you, yourself, have hit pause – vicariousness exonerates me from expressing my own vulnerability.   

It is a pretty dog-eared strategy to try and defend the sanity of people-watching because it is arguably so intrusive, encumbering upon that morally grey turf. However, it is interesting how businesses have caught on to this not-so-well-hidden secret to then capitalise upon it, of course. The ethics (or even the art of) people watching is not going to be productively analysed, but poked and nudged at as I have.

Image credit: Skitterphoto via Pexels