People Watching

Avivah Mitchel (’23) reflects on the power of people-watching to elicit empathy and connect with those we tutor. “Discomfort can appear differently in each person, but it is so often recognizable. Happiness, people can’t seem to hide it when it radiates off of them.”

I love to people-watch.

I love to observe people doing people things and wonder about their lives 

It has always been bizarre to me that each person I meet – and the billions of people that I’ll never meet – have just as many, if not more, thoughts, aspirations, likes and dislikes, talents and struggles, and emotions as myself. Not in the way that I don’t believe it, but in the way that it’s fascinating and difficult to wrap my head around, but it puts things into perspective and helps to get out of your own head. 

I find solace in people-watching.

I sit in a seat surrounded by windows in the coffee shop on the corner, observing all who walk past. I came here to work on my college essays, some of which are due in less than two weeks and I haven’t begun writing them. But like I often am, I am distracted by the individuals around me.

All I can do is people-watch. 

The woman on the corner in a bright yellow vest on top of a winter coat is holding a clipboard, with worry in her eyes. I imagine she is registering people to vote as the primaries are next month, only a few more days for people to register to vote and be eligible to vote in the next election. She lifts her chin and eagerly asks people questions – most of whom ignore her, or avoid eye contact and shake their heads. I can’t quite see what she is asking them, but she appears to be feeling defeated. A boy in a red crew neck nervously checks his phone 3 times as he crosses the street, he could be anxiously awaiting a message from someone, or maybe some sort of test result. His nervous demeanor transports him to the other side of the street –  where he once again, checks his phone. A boy in a Michigan baseball cap carries himself with certainty and confidence, his shoulders back, chest puffed out, backpack open and his jacket unzipped. He smiles to himself as he walks with a bounce in his step. I wonder if he had just heard good news or is on his way to a date, or perhaps he is just feeling good today. A couple peacefully hold hands as they slowly make their way down the block. Content smiles fill their faces as they turn to look at each other, the smile that doesn’t leave when they turn away. To me, they seem to be a new couple. Maybe they started dating a month ago. They look happy and full of warmth amongst the cold of the fall day.

These are just judgments and assumptions, I’ll never know the reality of the strangers on the other side of these windows, or even the ones 3 feet away from me at another table. But I won’t stop wondering. You may approach interactions differently based on what you observe about people. 

It’s quite easy to make negative judgments about people. It’s in our nature. Negative judgments are based on people’s appearance or clothing, assuming their situation. However, positive people-watching is about positive judgments and curious inquiries. To wonder about people’s lives, and approach those thoughts with good intentions, and empathy. 

I notice that most people who walk alone have headphones in, whether they are listening to music, a podcast, on a phone call, or just have them in to avoid interaction. Some people walk alone. Others with a friend, or partner. Some people walk in groups. Some people get pushed off the sidewalk in their group or have to walk alone slightly behind. Some people walk with emphasis on their heels, or toes. Some with long, slow strides, others with quick short steps, or somewhere in between. Some people look at their feet as they walk. Others pay clear attention to their surroundings. Some people are highly conscious of the way they walk, maybe that’s because of a past experience that stuck with them. Some people walk with pride radiating off of them, almost as if they are dancing. Others take timid steps. Some people roll themselves down the road in an electric wheelchair. While some get pushed by someone else. Some people drag their feet when they walk. Or keep their toes turned in. Others walk with their feet turned out and barely bend their knees. 

These people that I watch, are on their way to something or from somewhere. Each person picked out their outfit. Some may have retrieved their clothes from their floor, the same outfit from yesterday, and maybe even the day before. Or maybe they took time curating their outfit to represent and express themselves. One girl appears to be wearing handmade or vintage jeans with different colored patches. Another wearing a golden goose coat. I marvel at the variety. Someone else wears a t-shirt, they don’t seem to be shivering, though it’s the coldest day of the year so far. 

I am curious about each person’s story, family, opinions, and interests. I wonder if they participate in class, or have a favorite teacher or professor. I wonder if we’ve ever crossed paths before or if we will ever again. I won’t remember either way. Through the window, I can’t tell who is an exchange student from another country, who is from Michigan, or out of state. 

At school, I people-watch every day, in the hallways, out the windows of my classes, and even within my classes. But it’s different at school. The faces and backpacks are familiar. I see the same bunch of students on my walk from class to class each day, but I could name maybe 15 of them, the ones I walk with and a few others. I watch people’s body language. One day the person whose outfits I always admire walks alone today, with their head down. I wonder if something had happened.

Each friend I make, or classmate I get to know, has a story. They have joyful memories and heartbreaking trauma – of course some more than others – they have music they like, concerns, passions, and the things that build their identity; the ways in which I perceive them, what they chose to share, what they don’t, how they perceive themselves. Each person is full of value. I learn so much from people’s body language. Some body language is universal. Discomfort can appear differently in each person, but it is so often recognizable. Happiness, people can’t seem to hide it when it radiates off of them. 

In the Writing Center, people-watching and body language reading are some of the most important parts of being a writing tutor. A quiet student comes in, clearly, they had to find the courage to step in and sit down next to you: don’t bombard them with information about yourself and an intense amount of energy. A student takes a seat next to you and inches their chair away from the edge of the table, they need some space, don’t comment on it, just give them a little bit of space. A student comes into the writing center, introduces themselves immediately, smiles at you before you ask, and sits down with excitement and passion written all over their face, returning that energy. Every single interaction that you have with people in the Writing Center, and beyond, can be enhanced by the way your ability to be aware of and receptive to people’s body language. 

You should people-watch more often. You don’t have to be able to read body language. Just sit. And watch people being people. 

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