The Art of People Watching

Irie Voice by osgemeos (Moco Museum Barcelona)

For years I thought my poor sense of direction and tendency to procrastinate was simply evidence of my rocky relationship with geography and consistent lack of sleep. However, on reflection in most of these circumstances my eyes were just drawn to different things, namely other people. Whilst some enjoy hobbies like crocheting, table tennis or historical re-enactment, apparently my favourite pastime is people watching. Not in a Joe from You stalker kind of way, but more in a Conan Gray romantic pining sort of way.

The clue really is in the name when it comes to people watching, but I like to think it is less creepy than it sounds. Humans are instinctively curious and therefore inclined to observe the quirks and nuisances we see in passers-by as a means of understanding them better. However, as noted by Kate Barasz and Tami Kim in a recently published psychology article, A field guide to people-watching, ‘despite the myriad cues used and impressions formed about others’, the conclusions we draw about strangers are often wrong. The cliché but nonetheless very true statement ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ springs to mind here. I find I have the most fun people watching when I rewrite the book, let my imagination run wild and create a storyline about the stranger opposite me in the dentist’s waiting room which is almost implausible but can never be confirmed or denied. As a result, getting fillings has become slightly less tedious. 

With the rise in productivity culture, some may dismiss my hobby as a waste of time, to which I would draw their attention to avid people watcher and brilliant modernist writer, Virginia Woolf. One benefit of my English Literature degree has been the ability to invoke the back up of literary figures when I want my hobbies to appear intellectual. Woolf’s style of writing grew from her attentive and detailed observations about people in society that might otherwise be ignored. Her novels observed these characters as they in turn observed other people. In a sense when we read Woolf’s fiction we are engaging in a seemingly never ending process of people watching people watching people. In her 1930 essay, Street Haunting, Woolf encapsulates her examination of others on a walk through London: ‘into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind’. Deeply interested in the psychology of humans, Woolf’s writing reveals how interconnected we can feel to strangers when we observe them. 

However, Woolf’s earlier 1922 novel Jacob’s Room, highlights the innate ambiguity of people, as Jacob the ghostlike protagonist is repeatedly interpreted and misinterpreted by the characters around him. Woolf thoughtfully conveys this misinterpretation through the character of Mrs Norman. When sat across from Jacob on a train, we gain access to Mrs Norman’s internal perspective, she initially misjudges Jacob as a threat and then considers the resemblance he bears to her son. Through Mrs Norman’s careful observation of Jacob’s newspaper, clothes and mannerisms, Woolf juxtaposes the intense human curiosity to know one another with the essential unknowability of strangers. Whilst I am not comparing my Sunday afternoon noticing passers-by from the window of an overpriced cafe to Woolf’s genius attentiveness, I do think this hobby illuminates our eagerness to understand each other better.

Coco’s Corner Shop

To successfully participate in people watching you need to choose an appropriate location. Ideal spots include: a cosy armchair in your local cafe; anywhere on a university campus; a window seat on a bus (or as I have found since moving to Amsterdam, a tram) and most importantly among the excited crowd gathering at the airport arrivals gate. Just think of the opening scene from the film Love Actually. People watching, despite its quiet and introverted implications, does not have to be a solitary activity. I often find myself at a restaurant with a friend trying to decipher the relationship between the pair across from us: siblings or dating, friends or lovers, cousins or undercover MI5 agents discussing a matter of national security? The list is endless. The beauty of people watching is that as the observers, we too are being watched, strangers just as easily may be guessing our relationship status or experience within the Secret Intelligence Service. There is no ill-intent behind these observations, just curiosity or a desperate desire to break an awkward silence. People watching done right is not staring, making nasty comments or causing others discomfort; it is appreciating and being interested in learning about others.

Considering Woolf’s focus on interiority, when admiring the intricacies of strangers I often find I am peering into an unintended looking glass, revealing my own insecurities and desires. These realisations can bubble up to the surface unexpectedly, one moment you’re absent mindedly watching a passer-by and the next you’re two hours deep in a silent conversation with your thoughts. I experienced this moment of reflection at the weekend when I saw a red-headed woman striding along in leather cowboy boots and my eyes were drawn to their bold design. This reminded me that I am still not confident enough to buy a pair of my own, not because I am worried I will be expected to wear the matching hat, but because I am unsure whether I can pull them off. The mirror met me again on my walk home, I listened as an older man sang unashamedly along to his music. I stared in awe as I was forced to face my irrational fear that humming aloud to my autumn themed Hozier and Taylor Swift playlist would be met with disapproving looks. If anything it would be a treat for the ears. 

Considering this deep dive into my favourite hobby I have come to realise that people watching, whilst driven by a curiosity about others, is most revealing about ourselves. Woolf pointed out this very human tendency to misunderstand strangers and project onto them. Maybe people watching actually has nothing to do with other people at all. We are searching for ourselves in her eyes, in his style, in their unfiltered laugh, in the hope that we can gain some reassurance that it is okay to be entirely and authentically ourselves.

Work cited:

Barasz, Kate and Kim Tami. “Editorial: A field guide to people-watching.” Current Opinion in Psychology 45 (June 2022).

Woolf, Virginia. The Death of the Moth, and other essays, by Virginia Woolf Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, 2016.

Written by Amy Larsen


1 Comment

  1. julia says:

    An amazing piece of reading. Interesting, sensitive and tender. When I was little and I couldn’t sleep, I would go to the balcony to stare at the people on the streets. Why are they walking so late? Why don’t their parents tell them to go to sleep? I asked myself. Then I created stories about them, in fact, stories that I wanted to happen to me. Watching as a hobby is more profound than you can think, and you just put words to that depth. Thanks for this article, Amy! 

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