Last week, I wrote of my once habit of having a weekly date with myself at Starbucks to write, and then a few nights ago I chatted with a friend about the desire to have more time to just sit, sip, relax, and people watch.
What else could I do but indulge in this pleasure at my earliest possible convenience having awakened with that particular mood?
After all, time is something I have in spades at the moment.
After ordering the perfect fall flavored latte – which incidentally is not a pumpkin spice latte for me (despite my yoga pants and oversized sweater) – I settled in a big chair against the wall opposite the door. The perfect vantage point to watch the waves of characters walk in for their morning treats and the perfect spot to relax, read, people watch, and wait for the day’s words.
Ah, people watching!
That time honored tradition of introverts.
That studied practice of looking at people in their daily routines, noticing subtleties in the masks they wear for the world while seeking the holes to the true self shining through, and fixing our thoughts about who or what they are as we consider the character and motivations of those we watch, quietly deciding what we can about their behaviors, their lives, and their choices.
“I did not know before,” continued Bingley immediately, “that you were a studier of character. It must be an amusing study.”
~Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Amusing indeed, Bingley, to study a stranger’s every movement, facial expression, word, look, and appearance.
I do love to sit and watch people. My pride doesn’t like to admit how much I enjoy it because on top of a keen sense of observation, a knowledge of human behavior, and a familiarity with definite rules of kinesthesiology, it takes a certain amount of pride and perhaps vanity to be able to sit and observe other people, making accurate readings of their presentation of self and slight judgments about them with ease.
Look at that woman in the matching yoga pants and top wearing heels and full makeup… clearly not going to yoga! Holding onto her youth perhaps? Yes, I detect signs of a facelift, cheek fillers, and lip plumpers.
Oho, look at you, young man, and your amazing tribal tattoos, clearly placed to make your biceps show to their best advantage while drawing the eyes toward your pecs. Gym bag, shaker bottle and bottle of protein powder in outside pockets. Ah, but you’re a regular here? AND getting a 600 calorie treat? There’s a non sequitur!
Check out the beard! Very nice plaid and hiking boots too. Do you actually know how to cut down a tree or is this just the lumberjack look you’re going for today? Did I just hear you say you got a mani?!
Oh. What charming socialist children, planning their overthrow of western civilization and its vices while sitting in the most recognizable and profitable coffee shop chain in the world, a shining example of capitalism, and texting their friends from their fruit bearing smart devices. The amusing irony is lost upon them.
I wrote the other day about the eyes being the windows to the soul and how truth is found in them by those who will look past the convincing lies we wear. Now here I sit picking apart the convincing lies, because that is what a studier of character does as they people watch:
We look at the presentation of the self to find the chinks in your armor, the mistakes, the weaknesses, the bits that reveal the truth beneath, like detectives looking for the reality beneath the facade.
The less simple one appears, the more diverting the game:
“Intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage.”
~Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
It’s amusing to us to be able to read everyone else so well, to feel they’re an open book. There is something cold and calculating about people watching and that is why it’s such a dangerous game to play with people you know and especially people you care for in any degree. A cocky sense of “I know you better than you know yourself” as you read the other is arrogant and assumes that your judgments are infallible.
Skilled people watchers completely intellectualize people and their actions, which for interrogators, detectives, spies, and intelligence officers at work is perfectly acceptable.
But for the rest of us, especially when watching close to home, intellectualizing the objects of our affections causes us to entirely miss, misrepresent, or wholly misread and misunderstand the subtle cues we receive from those who hold affection for us.
Remember a time you were in love and you behaved in such a way that now seems entirely out of character for you? Perhaps looking back you shake your head and wonder, “what was I thinking,” about the unbridled PDA you had with that person while now you shudder at the thought of a kiss in a restaurant, about your boldness in telling someone how you really feel when normally you hold your emotions close, about how you put on a convincing show of playful ebullience in front of someone to get their attention when you prefer to be the wallflower.
Being a skilled reader can get in the way of building meaningful relationships because once we begin to analyze and observe those around us, we lose the ability to openly and honestly experience the genuine interactions and emotions being brought to us.
It is one incredibly effective way to alienate those we love and hope to love.
People who love (romantic or otherwise) will act in ways that are uncharacteristic to their normal behaviors, outside of their normal patterns, and in ways that when taken individually can make them look one way, when taken with the whole picture intellectually seem sporadic, but when seen as a reflection of the nearness of the object of their affection – namely you, my people watching friend – suddenly may make sense, become charming, and can build further affection.
Of course that building of affection is only possible if the people watcher steps out of his or her natural habit, puts off the intellect, and chooses to actually interact and connect with those close to him.
Originally published 2 November 2017