Last night, I found myself in a very familiar situation — a fly on the wall of yet another "popping" party. But from my post, nestled far away from any drunken dancers and unruly children, I was able to observe a vast variety of mannerisms and interactions most people overlook at ground level. In retrospect, I can go on and on about how many deep connections and patterns I found while people watching — and can perform an analysis test down to a tee — but the simple answer to what I was doing is often just "stalking" for some people. Obviously, I'm not an advocate for obsessive intrusion with malicious intent, but I want to bring attention to the stigma we pin on a mostly benign form of stalking — people watching. I am certainly not the first to enjoy — as creepy as it seems — a thorough people watching session, which is why the concept of watching others isn't a strange concept in theory. In fact, even the controversial Wikipedia reference recognizes a people watching to be a multi-faceted activity that can even be categorized as a scientific naturalistic observation. Not only does watching others serve as a form of reality TV, but it also improves our perceptions of our world and in turn ourselves.
Needless to say, I don't mean the trashy type of reality TV we watch as a guilty pleasure — shoutout to MTV. I'm hinting at the wholesome sense of euphoria some people get when they find that one nook in a public space and carefully position themselves with a newspaper or warm cup of coffee and ready themselves to live through someone else's eyes. But why does an observer need to hide what they're doing while a "naturalist" can say it like it is? My theory, as always, has to do with a miscommunication between observer and the observed. Obviously, I too would get defensive if I was a participant in some social experiment, but if someone truthfully confessed to me that they indulge in observation, I wouldn't mind. In some aspect, it may even be flattering to have someone invested in learning your unique idiosyncrasies. Yet perhaps the biggest factor in the stigma surrounding the topic is the sense of anonymity that keeps people watching a controversial topic. The idea that someone somewhere is watching you elicits the only natural response — a paranoia that channels an almost primal need to defend ourselves from the masked killer lurking around the corner. This in turn maintains the frustrating back and forth between the observed feeling weird for being watched and the observer feeling weird for watching.
As a result, there is nobody to blame and no single solution to eliminating the negative connotation of people watching. Perhaps the only way out would be the path less taken — one that intersects at the corner of communication and acceptance. Some people can seem creepy — but most are just exercising their Darwin-detailing skills. Observation, in any context, is key to gaining a greater understanding of the our surroundings and in turn ourselves. The more we see through the eyes of another, the more we are able to take away from our lives. This idea isn't anything new for many —especially New Yorkers who are often considered to be an organic representation of the bustling city itself — and as this New York Times article details, someone has even gone as far as creating a website full of hilarious dialogue they've overheard on the streets. If you'd like to broaden your horizons and put a smile on your face, here's the website.
As far as we know, we are only alive for one lifespan that possesses an infinite number of possibilities and people and paths that we may never have the opportunity to take. So please, don't feel creepy if you're an avid people watcher, and don't be too quick to judge someone with a comically large newspaper and a keen eye for detail.