A Little Secret…I Watch You When You’re Not Paying Attention

Tucked away into a small corner of a local coffee shop, I’m watching you and you don’t even realize it. The curiously strong coffee clutched in my fist makes me look just like you, but instead I’m listening, assessing, judging, and filing away my observations.

You’re telling a story, and I’m watching the way you fling your hands into the air to emphasize your point. Then the quietly demure nod of the server when your Western sentimentalities embarrass her; she takes your order and scuttles away, now ensconced behind the safety of the service counter.

I people-watch.

I watch from park benches and coffee shops, sidewalk stoops and crowded markets.

Very full and busy Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand!

Dense crowds make my heart seize (there’s just something unnerving about being so tightly packed that I’m breathing a stranger’s warm and moist exhaled breath) so instead I escape behind the crowds. I squeeze between the market tables and perch on small stool behind the market stalls. The vendors smile; they understand.

Then I watch and take note.

Behavior changes when you have no perception of being observed. That’s my favorite part. The vendors and tourists know they’re in a market surrounded by people, but they hide behind their language differences and perceived anonymity.

Street food vendor at the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Locals assume the tourists won’t cotton on to the teasing if it’s done in Thai, and conversely, rapid exchanges in Swedish only go so far when I can obviously tell the couple is arguing over which person is about to take the role of “bad cop” in the pending price negotitations for a tacky souvenir (that they will regret. Trust me; it’s  funny, but not a keeper).

The thing is, none of those overcome the body language. The cultural cues are written on our bodies and that’s what I’m watching.

Friends visit the Taj Mahal, India.

In India, husband and wives rarely hold hands, but yet it’s a cultural norm for male friends to handhold and touch, and for women to hold hands with other women.

The French touch and gesture openly.

Young Japanese tourists are easily spotted by a face full of carefully applied makeup and a sense of style I’ve resigned myself to never actually possessing no matter how many copies of In Style I sift through.

And the Thai women like to giggle and gossip. They talk more crap about you while you’re getting your massage than you could possibly imagine.

You know how common knowledge says “you’re imaging things, people aren’t that interested in talking about you?”

Not quite true. Traveling and being intrigued by culture is a two way street – I’m here in Thailand learning about their culture, and they are staring right back at me, making assumptions and observations about Americans. The night markets in Chiang Mai are a breeding ground for gossip and trained ears pick up on the buzz of farang, farang, farang (Westerner, Westerner, Westerner) from the lips of locals as they gossip.

My people-watching props vary from city to city. Sometimes it’s an ice cream cone; other times a notebook and a shady tree. I’m unobtrusive and everyone is subject to scrutiny, tourists and locals alike, it’s fascinating to see not only a window into the local culture, but also how other people digest the culture.

Dog peeking out of shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

I find myself wondering: Has anyone else noticed the women scootering around the city on impossibly high heels? Or the forgotten street dogs, mangy and sad with tattered, dingy sweaters indicating…? I’m not sure. Perhaps that someone does care. Or maybe it’s a single crazy old lady in town knitting sweaters, chasing down dogs and swathing them in clothes?!

I don’t people watch for answers, but instead for the endless streams of questions and perpetual food-for-thought.

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45 Responses to A Little Secret…I Watch You When You’re Not Paying Attention

  1. Thailand May 23, 2011 at 7:34 am #

     Thailand is a great place to watch people, its where people from all over the world come to relax and get away.

  2. Justin Watt March 15, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    Like that Taj photo—though it almost seems as if the guy on the left is a double-amputee.

    • Anonymous March 16, 2011 at 10:42 am #

      Wow, heh heh yeah, had to click into the post to see what you meant…and
      now every time I look at that photo, that’s what I’ll think about! :)

  3. Lindsayhogg March 14, 2011 at 2:40 pm #

    I love to people watch from my window. In fact, there is a path along the lake behind my house, and yesterday morning while having my morning coffee I saw a man peeing in my backyard. It seems he chose to turn towards the houses to pee rather than towards the lake. Not sure what the his logic was for this. Maybe he was purposely trying to show people he penis?

    • Anonymous March 15, 2011 at 3:41 am #

      Hmm…very strange that he wouldn’t have turned the other way! They say
      there are people out there like that tho… But, it sounds like with the
      lake right there you have a prime spot to watch and observe people, enjoy!

  4. Yvonne March 6, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    great post! people watching is one of my fav things to do. and telling myself stories about them. who they are, where they’re from and I love love giving them names. Mrs Noteethsmile, Mr Kevincostnerlookalike, Ms Giggling, Mr Nicebodyuglyface…:)

    • Anonymous March 10, 2011 at 2:41 am #

      Thanks Yvonne. I love that you name the people; I play that game
      occasionally when people watching with a friend, but I always forget to do
      it when I’m solo – will have to remember! :)

  5. Sofia - As We Travel March 6, 2011 at 1:56 am #

    Great post!! Spot on. Just because people can’t understand the exact words you’re saying, it doesn’t mean that they don’t understand “what you’re really saying”. Body language, voice tone and situation tells everything!

    • Anonymous March 10, 2011 at 2:40 am #

      Thanks Sofia! That’s often my precise response when people ask me how I
      communicate in places where I don’t speak the language at all – it’s down to
      body language and gestures…they communicate volumes! :)

  6. Rebecca March 5, 2011 at 4:56 am #

    I admire you, because the need for answers make me crazy, and I have to find them in order to rest easy. So if you happen to discover, um, why mangy dogs are wearing sweaters in what I assume is fairly warm weather, please let us in on it. Otherwise, I foresee hours of fruitless Google searching. I’m pretty sure this is something you have to find out on site. *sigh*

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 7:01 am #

      Hmm, I will start asking around Rebecca…I simply can’t be responsible for wasted hours of Google searching! :) But yeah, I really have no theories at this point…I’ve never seen anyone putting the jackets ON the dogs, just stray dogs bounding around with jackets. I’ll investigate more :) Thanks for stopping into A Little Adrift and sharing your thoughts!

  7. Sabina March 5, 2011 at 12:52 am #

    I’m aways (kind of) careful about what I do in public, because I’ve aways figured somehow, somewhere, someone is watching, somehow. Now I know that at least one person really is ;)

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:55 am #

      That’s right! Now you know that me, or my doppelganger are out there observing you :) It’s can be good though, when you’re on the road to pretend that someone is watching you…I find it makes me act to my nicest (instead of the ever so occasional mini temper-tantrum that can crop up when frustration kicks in)!

  8. Erica Kuschel March 5, 2011 at 1:35 am #

    People watching is one of my specialties. I could sit with a cup of joe and take in the surroundings for hours. I don’t think you have to be in a foreign country to fully get how people are, what their intentions are, etc. Although, you bring up a good point, I have never thought about me being the subject of the gazes – I’m usually the gazer.

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:58 am #

      Cheers to a fellow people-watcher Erica! You are definitely right about people watching from home, no matter where you are it can lend all kinds of insight into a situation. Oh, and glad I’ve turned the mirror around, some say it’s creepy to realize that someone might be watching you at any given moment, but I kinda like it…I just wish I could know what conclusions they come to about me! :)

  9. Annie March 4, 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    I love people watching! Although I think at the moment I’m still the lost and confused one that doesn’t realize that others are watching me…

    I definitely need to learn to take a step back and just observe what’s going on as a whole, the way you have!

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:48 am #

      If you ever find yourself stressed out on the road, that’s when I love to step back from it all – I hunker down with a coffee and just focusing on observing those around me…oh, and no worries, very few people realize they are being watched if it’s in a crowded place, hehe, that’s what makes it more fun! :)

  10. Gray March 5, 2011 at 12:48 am #

    Very nice piece, Shannon. That’s one of the best things about traveling–observing people. I’m like you–I’d rather be off to the side, watching, not in the midst of the crowds.

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:51 am #

      Thank you Gray :) I often find it so much more interesting on the sidelines, that’s where you can actually process what’s going on around you, observe and understand – an essential activity for the first days in any new town :)

  11. Elise March 4, 2011 at 5:44 am #

    Loved this post. I definitely think people watching is a reason why so many of us travel. The ‘cultural cues written on our bodies’ is one of my favorites. Besides, I can get past being spoken about in Thai while i get my massage!

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:41 am #

      Agreed Elise! I know they are giggling about me in Thai when I get my massages, but that is one of those things I can happily overlook since it means blissing out on fantastically affordable massages! :)

  12. Kenan Lucas March 3, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    One of my favourite hobbies is sitting in a cafe and watching the people go past. I thought that made me sound perverse but I am glad someone else feels the same way.

    How do you take photos of people so close up without them realising? This is something I am particularly having trouble with at the moment.

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:44 am #

      Well…before I wrote this post I would have said maybe as a guy it sounds creepier…but apparently is sounds creepy for either of us according to some of the commentors! lol. :) As for the photos, I use the screen on my digital camera to frame the photos, rather than a viewfinder, so people assume I’m harmless, glance around and pass right over me since my camera is not up to my face! That, and a zoom lens :)

  13. Andrea and John March 3, 2011 at 2:49 am #

    So the world is your zoo, eh? Love it! Excellent post…the best way to soak up a culture is to watch people. I got quite used to it living in Paris, actually. As a woman, especially because all the women there check out each other’s clothes, hair, accessories, etc. It’s common in other cultures as well but I was really conscious of it there. ~Andrea

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:40 am #

      Hahaha! Love that analogy, yes, the world is my zoo :) I can only imagine all of the fashionable eye-candy in Paris! They are so trendy and put together there…yikes, I bet that makes you a bit more conscious of clothes and the such every time you go out.

  14. zablon mukuba March 2, 2011 at 9:18 am #

    doesnt this make you too self conscious?

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:38 am #

      No, not really. Most people never really realize you are watching them, so it’s a fun way to pass time and observe a new culture! :)

  15. Helmy Parlente Kusuma March 2, 2011 at 1:23 am #

    It’s the second activity after scene-watching. I love it!!
    Especially in tourist’s spots, priceless!!

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:37 am #

      It’s a fav activity for tourist spots! Makes it all a lot more entertaining when you have so much fuel for fodder to think about :) Cheers to another people-watcher out there!

  16. Andi Perullo March 1, 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    I looove people watching too! One of my favorite things to do while I’m at the airport waiting for a flight. Great post!!!

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:36 am #

      Airports certainly are wonderful snippets of every emotion, and it passes the time nicely because you have such a constantly changing cast of characters running by to catch their flights! :) Glad to know there are fellow people-watchers out there!

  17. Candice March 1, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    Love it! Also didn’t realize it was possible to find quiet recluse in Bangkok. :) I love people watching too…I can’t help but wonder what people think of me.

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:35 am #

      Well, quiet can be a bit hard to find, but there are plenty of places to find and spy on the people walking by! :) Hmm, you’re right, I hadn’t thought about what snap-judgments people think about me – yikes! :)

  18. Ayngelina March 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

    Great post Shannon, I love to watch people in the park. Many times it invites unwanted friends sitting down but then it becomes an adventure of its own.

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:33 am #

      Thanks Anygelina – you are so right, I should have put that word of warning in the post – in Guatemala especially, every time I went to a park or public space to hang out and just observe, I had “friends” come join me…sometimes it was great…othertimes half way through the conversation I conveniently forgot how to speak Spanish :)

  19. My Kafkaesque Life March 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    You should be a spy, lol. Now I’m afraid to be spotted by you, your x-ray eyes will undress me and find out everything about me… oh no.. i better leave quickly, Shannon’s already spying on me, lol.

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:22 am #

      Haha! I’m an ethical spy…no peeping Tom moves… but yes, you should be afraid, be very afraid ;-)

  20. Jack and Jill March 1, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

    I tend to forget how much I enjoy people-watching being a busy-busy-gotta-go type of person. But when I do stop and look around… people around can be pretty entertaining. Things they wear, how they walk, how they react to things on the road…

    Anyway, enjoyed the post. Reminds me to take things a little slower today…

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:32 am #

      Thanks Jack and Jill – like you, I can sometimes get really caught up in other pieces of life and forget to take it slower and just observe. It’s a great stress reliever too, in addition to all the rest of the fun of watching people when they don’t realize it! :-)

  21. Nomadic Chick March 1, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    Hi! Remember me? Funny to tune in after all this time and discover you are a sub, sub secret spy of human behaviour. I, too, find humans fascinating in whatever culture I’m immersed in!

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:26 am #

      Hi Jeannie! Good to see you back on the interwebs :) Now that everyone know’s I am super spy my job is going to get a whole lot harder! Sheesh, :::note to self…keep mouth shut:::: ;-)

  22. Laura March 1, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    I also really love to people watch. It’s perhaps one of my favorite pastimes. I’m not sure what drives the curiosity but sometimes I find myself so distracted by it. (I also like how you mentioned the Swedish couple arguing over who would bargain. It would have been classic if you had interrupted them and mentioned how the souvenir was so not worth it, to see the look on their face would have been funny ;)

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:29 am #

      It really is just fascinating to see all of the tiny moments that would, otherwise, go unnoticed. As for the Swedish couple – that would have been priceless – especially since they would have assumed I spoke some Swedish, when really I don’t have the slightest clue! :) Glad to know there are other avid spies…I mean people watchers out there!

  23. Claire March 1, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    I really like this post…..as I am also a people watcher!! Love it. When I used to work in D.C, I would have two lunches, one for people watching on the busy DC streets, and the other for my actual lunch. Airports are another fascinating place to observe humanity-the happy reunions, the missed flights, the sad departures from loved ones, and the missing luggage catastrophes. A microcosm of almost every human emotion in the span of an hour or two!

    • Anonymous March 5, 2011 at 6:25 am #

      DC is such a melting pot of people that I can see how you could really have some interesting lunch breaks watching all of the people pass through – I loved the mix of yuppie political types with service industry, and you’re odd handful of hippy-dippy :) The airports are usually when I whip out the computer…but you’re so right, I’ve forgotten how much fun they can be for ppl watching – no computer next time, I’m going to pay attention!

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