Six Things I Learned From Three Years on the Road: People Watching

The body is a powerful communication tool. I would much rather watch people than visit ruins. After three years on the road, I have become an expert people watcher.

The best places to people watch are well-lit and not crowded. Situations which provide a head-to-toe view and involve human interaction are best. I also like to change my perspective, especially in crowds, by watching from above.

My favorite places to people watch are outdoor cafes for street fashion; airports and train stations for greeting and leave taking; metros and plazas for daily life; playgrounds and schools for kids and their parents; markets and grocery stores for food and food retailing; and weddings and funerals for pivotal life events.

Being invited to a wedding in another culture is a people-watching goldmine. I have become a fearless people watcher. Yesterday, I joined a funeral cortege. The mariachis at the head of the cortege were hot and bored. Behind them, the old women were crying and the old men were stoic. The young people at the end of the cortege were chatting, laughing and immortal.

It’s important to watch across social classes as well as cultures. Museums give insight into one end of society, bowling alleys another. To miss either is an incomplete picture.

Use all the senses, not just the eyes. I took the photo in this post at a café in a museum in London. The couple was so much in love, it was a thing of beauty to behold them. I wasn’t the only one watching; an older gentleman in a pale yellow linen jacket and a Panama hat was drinking cognac and watching, too. Something about the set of his shoulders conveyed nostalgia and sadness.

The young woman wrote something on a napkin, which I retrieved immediately after they left. She had marked the napkin with a pale pink kiss and the words “I love you.” I still could smell her perfume. The man who was watching and I smiled at each other. He lifted his glass of cognac in a toast. I will die with that memory.

However, people watching can be tricky; it’s important not to get busted. Sunglasses are useful. So is tilting the head slightly away from the people being observed. Being engaged in a task reduces suspicion. Reading a book and taking notes is an activity that is effective and also allows the watcher to record what they are seeing. Newspapers are especially good because the watcher can hold them up, making them a perfect people-watching shield. (I’m also not above following someone discretely if I’m not done watching them.)

Things to observe when people watching: age, gender, social class, group dynamics (dominance, submission, respectful behavior, social distance), personal appearance, perfumes/aftershaves (Sniff the air) and emotions (happy, bored, nervous, angry).

People watching around the globe has taught me that some emotions are expressed universally, while others vary by culture. Once, in Tunisia, as I was watching two guys interact, my first impression was that they were angry. However, I dismissed my first take because their language naturally sounds more aggressive and people stand much closer to each other in North Africa than in other parts of the world. Then they stated slugging each other.

The lesson? First thought, best thought.

People watching hones situational awareness, which keeps the traveler safe. I have learned to pay attention to my own body reactions. If my gut is telling me something is off, I leave. I have nothing to win if I am wrong, but I might just save my life if I am right. The situational awareness I have developed through people watching over the past three years keeps me safe here in Mexico.

Not to mention some great material for writing.

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