It has been a while since I have done a post like this, so I am excited to write on this topic: The value of people watching! Now, before you consider me a weirdo or accuse me of spying on people, I just want to define what people watching means to me (or according to the good old Internet).
People watching or crowd watching is the act of observing people and their interactions, usually without their knowledge. It involves picking up on idiosyncrasies to try to guess at another person’s story.
So, yes, people watching is a little weird at times. You may even get caught when you do it. However, I attribute people watching to four things that are essential to storytelling and the ability to write believable characters.
Let’s dive on in.
1. A QUICK INTRO
In this day and age, we are constantly surrounded by information. Many of us have smartphones that can tell us what we need to know in seconds. Communication has become as simple as clicking a button, and you can see your loved ones who are thousands of miles away. With this comes the pressure of technology. I am absorbed in my phone, and, as stated in previous posts, I can become overwhelmed by the amount of time I spend on my phone or computer.
Occasionally I challenge myself to just sitting down on a park bench with no distractions. After a few moments, I’ll grow bored and restless, wishing I was at home, snuggled in bed, or drinking a nice Diet Coke. But then, when I stifle these nonsense thoughts, a person walks by. Who knows who the person is or where they’re off to…
So it’s up to me to figure out who this person is!
Maybe the person is off to a job interview; maybe the person is going to the hospital, about to receive a life-changing diagnosis. Maybe the person just won the lottery. Then comes the power of imagination, and a writer unleashes his or her talents accordingly.
Watching normal people living their everyday lives is the perfect way to learn about how we all interact.
2. SOCIAL AWARENESS
There is no doubt that people watching aids in social awareness. Once you start practicing the people watching habit, you’ll start to pick up on subtle things that can explain why people act the way they do.
Social awareness leads to emotional growth, and this is massively important for writers. We must consider ourselves psychologists, in a way: We study our characters, diagnose their flaws, and work to expose them for our readers.
Social awareness then takes on the role of various factors. When we want to develop this emotional intelligence, we have to pay attention to certain things that will help us learn more about the people around us. Here are a few:
- Listen to what they say
- Repeat what was said
- Tone of voice
- Body language
So how does this relate to real life situation?
Well, let’s consider an example from my creative writing class. Personally, I am not a fan of the classes I take at my university, but I don’t want to rant in this post. In one class, I felt as if I was learning nothing from the school activity, and so I challenged myself to a little “people watching” exercise, in which I observed my classmates and wondered what they were really thinking.
From what I could observe, I sensed that there was a lot of boredom in the classroom (constant gazes toward the clock, staring into space, etc.) and some attentiveness to the professor (scribbling in books, eye contact, etc.). Maybe I was wrong in my assessment, but even if I was, I found the experiment to make me think about how communication is so important in any environment you’ll find yourself in.
3. VERBAL COMMUNICATION
Verbal and non-verbal communication are both tied to social awareness, but I want to expand on the two a little more. In some past classes, I learned that most communication is non-verbal, and some statistics suggest that only 7% of all human contact is through verbal communication (according to Dr. Albert Mehrabian).
While the numbers could be skewed, it is important to realize that the overwhelming majority of communication is through non-verbal cues, yet we emphasize so much on what we say and how we say it (words and tone). Why is this?
Words cut like a knife, and words melt us when we’re in love or with friends or receive a compliment. Language is integral to the human experience, as we know, and so when we people watch, it benefits our understanding to know what our people are saying. Words are little insights into the mind.
Now, this can be considered eavesdropping, which I am quite guilty of doing. It’s human nature to want to know what people are up to, and the same thing can be attributed to verbal cues.
One time, I was commuting on the Buenos Aires subway system when I stumbled upon a very interesting situation. The subway was cramped, packed with people, and I was sitting across from an interesting couple. Both were obviously well-dressed, educated, young, and… Breaking up, in front of everyone.
The man was whispering to her, trying not to make a scene as he broke her heart on that train. I was shocked, terrified, and wondering if I was imagining the conversation before me. But there was no imagination in this case. And what’s worse? He kissed her on the cheek as tears rolled down her face, said goodbye, and hopped off at the next stop.
My heart ripped down the middle for the poor woman across from me. Everyone on the train pretended not to know what was going on, and no one offered any help to her. I wanted desperately to talk to her, but I was a young American and had to get off at the next stop. I was certain she didn’t want anyone bothering her, because she shut down with her non-verbal signals (more on this to come). The shame that covered her face still haunts me.
In this example, there are a lot of non-verbals to unpack, but the ability to hear what the man was saying and how he was saying it was a crux in my understanding of the situation. Sometimes, when we don’t fully comprehend what’s going on, it’s because we don’t have a full picture. Maybe we catch phrases here and there, but I was held captive by the break-up.
The words only iterated the situation before me, despite all the hints from the non-verbal communication.
When we listen to people around us, we develop a greater understanding of how people operate. We can understand how people use what they say to further highlight what they really want to do. If we’re being honest, sometimes people just don’t catch the non-verbals we send, and words step in, ready to get the job done.
4. NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION
If verbals only compute 7% of communication, that means that non-verbals make up 93%. Let that sink in.
As a writer, I have trained myself to emphasize what I want to write. When characters are talking, I know exactly what they are saying to each other, and dialogue becomes one of the most key elements of the story. For example, why is there such an emphasis on the first time lovers whisper, “I love you,” to each other?
Well, according to our statistic, we should be paying more attention to how people act around us, physically, that is. Are they interested in what we are doing, or are they bored and wish they could be anywhere else? Are the people on the streets broken inside, aching for someone to ask them how their days are going, or are they madly, desperately in love?
While we are not psychics or fortune tellers, we can gain greater understanding when we pay attention to body language.
Let’s head back to my creative writing class experiment for a second. I was watching my classmates (hopefully not in a creepy way) and ruminating on what some of their body language meant. Here are some things I caught onto:
- Slumped over the book. (Indicates boredom, tiredness)
- Fiddling with fingers or pens. (Can suggest boredom, but studies suggest that fidgeting is something we do when we are paying attention to something)
- People staring into space, eyelids drooping. (Boredom, tiredness)
- Pens back and forth above lips. (Honestly who knows)
- Underlining phrases in book. (Attentiveness to class)
- Doodling in book. (Boredom)
- Mostly crossed legs. (In a comfortable environment)
We have to consider that our minds pretty much automatically recognize these cues and place them into one big image of the people before us. But when we unravel each little movement, we start to see how our minds are smart enough to figure things out in a span of seconds.
It’s pretty incredible stuff, if you ask me.
5. STORYTELLING ABILITIES
As previously stated, we writers are psychologists, we are doctors, we are researchers. We must know what we want to write, and we have to know how to write it convincingly, or our readers will be disinterested in the story we are so so excited to tell.
I have learned so much from watching people. An infinite amount of stories are possible when you open your mind to the world around you. Just like our world is never stagnant, our created worlds are as diverse and large as we want them to be.
I will be honest with you: People watching has taught me more than any creative writing class. Maybe this suggests the classes I have taken are subpar, but I do believe the best writers are trained to watch and analyze reality before diving into imagination.
Both are integral to write, as we write what we know, but we also write what we want to know of the mystery around us. Nothing should ever be black and white, because there is always a gray area of magic around us. This magic is simply what we cannot understand, since we are only human.
But writers have a God complex. We want to be the gods of our imaginations, and that’s where our storytelling comes into place.
If you find yourself in a crowded place, pay attention to the people around you. If you find yourself on a park bench, pay attention to the people who cross in front of you. There is value to be found in observation, especially if you’re a writer. And at the very least, consider how all of these aforementioned points are tied together.
People watching is something you can do anywhere. Don’t be a creep if you decide to participate, but it can be a good way to distract yourself from your own situation, and empathize with others.
But people watching is just the cusp. Relationships are where we really learn. Don’t forget to be kind to all you meet, and really begin to pay attention to all the non-verbals.
Until next time,