A beginner’s guide to people watching

Stalking the stalkerAnyone can take part. We can indulge in any public place wherever we are in the world. Best of all it’s free to do it. I challenge anyone to deny that they enjoy sometimes just sitting back and watching people go about their daily lives.

People watching is of course a very easy thing to do and most of us do it without realising (sometimes we have to try hard NOT to get wrapped up in someone else’s conversation or public disagreement).

So what should we bear in mind if we want to enjoy this innocent form of stalking? Perhaps the single most important thing is to choose a good location. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Street café – perhaps the most clichéd of places, to complete the picture you should be reading a broadsheet newspaper while discreetly sipping your espresso. From your table you are able to observe both your fellow coffee drinkers/diners and also the passers-by on the street.

2. Park bench – here you can watch the local people indulging in their various forms of recreation; families taking a stroll, runners or cyclists whizzing by and others just catching up on the gossip are all fair game. A city park is good place to observe how local people dress and the way families and friends interact.

3. Major tourist attraction – I enjoy sitting on the steps of  Trafalgar Square or under the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus and just taking in the surrounding crowd. Tourists may have a great opportunity to watch other people, but they also provide some of the best entertainment to the casual observer. I’ve watched many a group of Japanese people trying to line up the perfect photo and smiled knowingly as foreign visitors struggle to open a sorry looking triangular cardboard sandwich box only to look at each other in disgust as they take the first disappointing bite.

4. Public transport – I always enjoy riding the New York subway. You can watch as the flow of people enter and leave your carriage, the profile of the passengers changing as you move between districts and corresponding strictly to the demographics above ground. On a Mexico City metro ride every other stop brings a new entertainer, entrepreneur or storyteller into the carriage.  A short trip on the Skytrain in Bangkok on the other hand stood out for for its mixture of brightly dressed young Thais and more than a few old western men with their young local ‘girlfriends’.

The London tube seems very reserved in comparison although I do enjoy hearing a rich mix of strange words being spoken and trying to work out which languages they belong to.

People watching (is it stalking?) can be a lot of fun and is also a good way of gaining a brief insight into a place that you’re passing through. Put down the guide book, pack away the smartphone and just observe. The chances are that you’ll see people walking, talking and dressing in ways that tell you plenty about the destination you’re visiting; more even than the ‘must-see’ attractions listed in your travel guide.

There’s one final thing you should bear in mind: while you are busy observing the locals go about their normal activities, some of the locals are no doubt curiously watching you, the strange tourist, watching them. People watching usually works in both directions.

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Freelance travel writer

10 Responses to “A beginner’s guide to people watching”

  1. I think I’m a bit of a serial people-watcher! I love observing people and watching their reactions. It’s gotten even worse since I’ve been travelling where there are so many more different cultures. A great post by the way!

    August 5, 2011 at 9:27 am
  2. During intense sessions of people watching I like to play a little game of ‘What does that person do?’

    It is best played in groups and out of ear shot of the person you’re watching but can be great fun.

    And it is amazing how much you can learn about a person from their shoes!

    August 5, 2011 at 12:06 pm
  3. I love people watching – it’s one of the best forms of free entertainment anywhere. Great post Andy!

    August 5, 2011 at 9:18 pm
  4. Andy Jarosz #

    Thanks for the comments – glad to see I’m not alone in my hobby 😉

    August 6, 2011 at 8:29 am
  5. Great post! I’m a bit of an addict too. Here, beaches are a good place, especially if you need to release your inner b*tch e.g. “There is no way she should be wearing a bikini at her age!”

    August 7, 2011 at 9:46 am
  6. Agreed.

    People-watching when they speak a language you don’t….is a fascinating experience and I love it every time. You have to dig deep into your gut instincts and knowledge of body language and of what intonations suggest. I love doing it. Possibly even more than eavesdropping on English speakers.

    In fact, when it comes to English speakers and especially the English, I can’t help but try and connect, if only to just say hello. I have a theory about the stereotype British reserve, the way we keep ourselves to ourselves….I reckon it’s not something we’re entirely comfortable with. Thinking of the times that a conversation lurker has stepped in and said hello, at my own reaction (an initial spike of indignation that mellows in seconds)…I think we want to get involved. We want to watch, but we want to connect even more, deep down…? Well, maybe. And I’m projecting and generalising wildly. 😉

    August 11, 2011 at 10:56 am
  7. Andy Jarosz #

    Haha, too true Linda – there’s nothing like a good bitching session away from the ears of your poor targets. Guilty as charged 🙂
    Mike, I think you’re onto something there. Some languages are entertaining even when you don’t understand a word (I could happily listen all day to a group of Italians in a lively debate). And as for us Brits, well I have to confess to doing exactly as you suggest: always reluctant and reticent about making first contact but very relieved when someone else does it for me. My wife is far better at speaking first to strangers so we work as a team 😉

    August 11, 2011 at 2:55 pm
  8. One of the things I love to do when visiting a new place – fascinates me how locals and tourists go about their day. The interactions can be so interesting. While I am no fashionista – love to watch the clothes and shoes go by!!! And, how about how they dress their dogs……I could watch for hours.

    January 27, 2012 at 1:53 pm


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