Perfecting People-Watching Etiquette

Businessman people-watching from a park bench

We humans are observers.  And if you've ever spent time people-watching, you know why!

Whether or not you consider yourself a curious type, this trait naturally comes alive when observing other people.  It's the perfect opportunity to imagine, learn, and compare ourselves.

Placing yourself on the periphery of someone's moment in time can spark your imagination. Sitting on a park bench, waiting in line, or passing time at the airport, you look at someone going about a single activity and you can fill in the blanks by making up a story.  Where is he from?  I wonder where she got the pretty blue sweater?  Is he buying flowers for a girlfriend, or for his grandmother who is ill?  You have the perfect opportunity to perfect your storytelling skills while watching people and their interactions with companions and strangers.

Observing, rather than participating, is a casual, relaxing activity.  And this is the key to appropriate people-watching.

On the Outside, Looking In

The first rule of watching other people is avoiding any engagement.  You aren't trying to communicate or interfere or express opinions.  You're just relaxing. 

You should never become part of the scene, therefore, you should never:

  • Get overly absorbed, as you can lose your place in where you are and empathy or sympathy might draw you in.
  • Stare.  You don’t want to disturb others by hyper-focusing.
  • Make facial expressions that indicate surprise or displeasure.  No grimacing or eyebrow raising.
  • Blurt out sounds or comments of approval or disapproval.

When in public places, we don't necessarily own the space we occupy.  And so the eyes of others are free to roam. 

However, we maintain a sense of what is "our space" and don't appreciate invasions.  We are territorial and private.  

In people-watching, as in every other social situation, consideration of others is key.  If you are caught staring into the going's on of others, game's over. You might be viewed as a space invader.  

Polite People-Watching

What is your intention?  If you're watching a group engaged in a sports activity, perhaps you want to learn a technique that makes them good at the sport.  Maybe you're curious to know where fashionable people shop, so you spend time at the mall to see who goes into which stores.  Perhaps you choose to soak up some sun on your lunch break and take note of the number of other folks in the park apparently doing the same thing.

These are perfect examples of our human tendency to imitate, learn, and compare by watching others.

You can also exercise appreciation.  Take a look at the various people around you without judging them.  This is your community.  They shop, eat, play, and work all around you and, perhaps, with you.  Say a word of thanks for them, and the life you all share.  Your heart feels a little more full now, doesn't it?

Polite people-watching has purpose.  You observe in order to learn something about someone, or maybe even yourself. 

And if you get caught?  Try giving a warm smile and a "hello" to smooth things over.


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