Photo by Anna Bal.
Photo by Anna Bal.

Driving back to campus from sailing practice a few weeks ago, I partook in one of my habitual pastimes: people-watching. No, it’s not that creepy lustful gaze, or the serial killer glare that people sometimes give. It’s just my face, watching.

I watch everything: how people sway their arms when they walk, whether or not their knees knock, or how much attention people pay to the road when they’re driving. I’ve seen people dig for gold. I recently watched a girl squat on the grass outside Whitman and eat a sandwich. Some of my favorite observations are the glances people get behind their backs when they walk away from their group of “friends” (freshman girls in particular).

People-watching gives me a window into the way I think that people think, and at least from my perspective, I feel perfectly normal when I do it. Then there was the ride back from practice.

I was sitting in the front seat of the car, looking out the window as I usually do. I watched as a woman struggled to merge onto the highway, leaving a trail of frustrated Jersey drivers in her wake. Not long after, a young man in a blue coupe pulled up next to us. As I stared (wearing my sunglasses of course), he looked over and held eye contact. As the seconds passed and he pulled away, he turned his head back to hold the gaze and I followed suit until he turned the corner. Rather emphatically, everyone in my car judged me. Everyone felt the need to express how concerned he or she was by my behavior. From the astonishment to the discomfort that they felt I had to hear it all during the next few minutes of the drive.

I definitely didn’t feel awkward, and I’m not sure the coupe driver did either. But the four other people made sure that I knew exactly how inappropriate my interaction was. After a short discussion on why I do this in the first place, the conversation devolved into an intervention of sorts with the repeated tagline of “that’s just not okay.” That’s when I first realized that this practice wasn’t socially acceptable.

Think about this for a moment. How many people do you see in a given day? How many of those people have you looked up and down because what they wore jumped out at you—for better or worse? How many times have you written a person off because they have a certain way, or look about them? We all do this, whether we like to acknowledge it or not.

One idea from social psychology, the psychological study of the individual in a social context, tells us that we use a type of automatic thinking to draw quick conclusions about people and our surroundings. We then use this information to form what we consider to be objective descriptions of the people we see. Combine this quick thinking with the Fundamental Attribution Error, which basically states that we attribute people’s behavior to their traits and personality and that everybody is a people-watcher.

What I mean by this is that when we look at another person, regardless of the degree to which we are acquainted, everything they do, all their actions, we interpret as a result of who they are, ignoring the situation’s impact on their behavior. We have become so accustomed to engaging in this that we naturally people-watch as if by reflex, without even noticing it.

Morning people are the best way I can think of explaining this phenomenon. As my friends all know too well, I am not a morning person. I hate the morning, and I hate the people I see in the morning. People have told me more than once that they thought I was a mean person, because they met me in the morning. What they failed to think about was the fact that I’m not ready for the day, I haven’t had my coffee yet, and I’m way too groggy to even force a “hello” across my lips. What people saw was an angry Bennett that they believed would always be angry and disgruntled, making that evaluation within seconds, as if by reflex.

I take a little more time, and that’s not to say I get it right any more or less. When I see someone who isn’t a morning person, I think about how rough it must be to have to say hello to all his friends, the struggles of smiling back at people, and the disappointment they must feel every time they fill a mug with coffee from the dining hall (or whatever that black stuff is in those machines). It could be my unique perspective, but I always try to think about the situation before judging the person, which is probably why I stare for so long.

In the car ride from sailing, I was forced to think about what it actually looked like staring at people. And it looks absolutely crazy. Who stares at people for longer than it takes to make eye contact? Secondly, why doesn’t being caught doing this embarrass me?

I think I’ve always known why. I don’t care if people see that I am watching them, because I don’t judge them when I look at them. I just notice them. I think about who they could be, not who they must be. I play out the possibilities in my head and think about the situation I found them in. Most people look at another person and assume they know something about who they are. I’ve never met most of the people I’ve people-watched, and I don’t think I ever will. But when I do, the observations I’ve made in the past (hopefully) won’t affect what I think of them in the future.

I couldn’t tell you why or how I got into this habit of people-watching, but I think I do it now because it interests me. It gives me something to think about on car rides, and reminds me that when I see someone I can only see what they’re doing in a moment and still know nothing about them as a person.

I don’t think I will ever stop people-watching. And why should I? I’ve never harmed anybody by watching them interact with others. I’m a fairly social person and can play off the times I get caught rather easily, or at least pretend as if it never happened. The more I learn about the social psychology of interpersonal interactions, the more I realize how benign my habit is compared to the unintentional reflex we have such a hard time controlling.

As my Social Psych professor reminded me in class last week, we tend to attribute our behavior in a given situation to the situation itself, whereas we attribute everyone else’s behavior to the way they are. In other words, morning people, as I mentioned before, often are judged because of their inability to function and their unfriendly demeanor. They’re seen as cold and unwelcoming, when in reality they only need a few more hours to get their act together.

It makes me wonder: maybe my way of people-watching is how we should observe one another. Maybe everyone else is looking with the wrong perspective. If we all openly people-watched, we wouldn’t feel so awkward about it, and maybe even find that there is a lot more to a person and a situation than we’d originally expected.