Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Ethics of People Watching

One of the reasons I love the city of Chicago is the variety of people I see everyday. And I admit: I'm an avid people-watcher. I'm not talking about checking out hot guys. I'm talking about noticing people move through their days - usually oblivious to the fact that I'm noticing them.

I never gave much thought to the "ethics" of this, for one, because I never stare. And two, what else am I supposed to do as I walk down the street? Stare at the sidewalk? Look at my reflection in the windows? Constantly window shop? Plus, come on, it's interesting watching people -- especially when they think they're not being looked at.

But what do we do when we people-watch? (C'mon, I know the few of you reading this like to people watch. Don't we all, on some level? So, do comment on this posting, let me know what fascinates you about people watching... )

For me, I look not only for the unexpected but the apparently mundane; I like learning the different ways people navigate their world. Here's just a sampling of things I've noticed lately:
* A big black woman outside a Bank of America, hawking StreetWise through hog calls
* A woman in a suit prancing down the sidewalk instead of walking
* A woman ambles down the sidewalk, mindless of the morning commuters. Suddenly, she turns and bows to a guy who rushes by her. In her hands, she holds a picture of Jesus.

I also notice things:
* A smoldering cigarette butt precariously sitting on the edge of a sidewalk grate
* Every morning on the corner of Daley plaza, a man holds a sign that reads: "Senator OBAMA, SAVE my only SON, PLEASE" (I have yet to figure out if this is about Iraq or something else)
* A red diamond sign near the corner of Madison & Wacker that reads, "You are beautiful" (Oh, how I love seeing that sign on my way to work.)

One of my most favorite times to watch people is actually on my way to work, whether I'm walking or riding the bus. This moment of the morning seems particularly unappealing and uneventful, considering the way people scurry, attempting to make it through a crosswalk before the flashing orange hand stops, and also considering the way people are focused on the walk ahead, barely looking around them to admire where they are (which says so much about them - especially considering the tourists I see daily outside my apartment, who are all about stopping and looking around, even if it means cutting you off and being totally unaware of all the people around them). Plus, it's 7:30, 8:00 in the morning; people seem intent to get where they're going - whether Starbucks or work - and don't seem to do much other than this. Which is exactly why when I do see someone doing something out of the ordinary, it's all the more interesting.

Not too long ago, I was on the CTA bus, riding to my temp job, hurtling down Madison before the bus screeched to a stop every couple blocks, and I couldn't help but almost be dismayed at the similarities I saw everywhere. People had the same set expressions on their faces, amplified by tired eyes. They streamed down the sidewalks. Everywhere I looked, the same.

And then, we stopped near the corner of LaSalle, and a couple stood nearby, and I couldn't help but imagine that they were simply saying their goodbyes before heading off to work -- just something simple, normal, something everyday. But then I noticed the body language, how one of his arms pulled her close to him, how his other hand cupped her face. And then she tried to turn away, her eyes scrunched up, her face red.

I suddenly felt as if I was intruding on something I shouldn't have seen, an intensely personal moment that I couldn't understand from just a simple glance. It could be about anything - she could be upset about someone who recently died, or they could have just broken up, or she could have just learned that he'd cheated on her. No matter what the "possibilities," I felt like I was doing something wrong, even though this moment was occuring on the intersection of two very busy Chicago streets.

People kept walking by, paying no heed to the couple, and the bus pulled away from the stop. And then I was back to all the people with the similiar expressions, scurrying off to work.

I still like to watch people, don't get me wrong. But that one moment, that split second, made me realize that we can guess and wonder all we want about people's lives -- but that doesn't mean we understand them any better than we did before.

1 comment:

graceandglory77 said...

I think I have been a people watcher my entire life. I can remember riding the school bus in first grade and watching intently the expressions on the faces of the older kids as they interacted with each other.

I always like to watch movements and expressions, and to observe people's style of dress and the way they interact with others. I enjoy people quite a lot, and I think I also enjoy watching the way they act out their lives. Now that I'm new to this area, I find myself watching people more than ever! When I'm downtown, skyscrapers don't fascinate this country girl like the people do.

The sad thing for me is that (unlike the small town I'm from) strangers in Chicago don't say hello or notice you. Usually no smiles are exchanged. They go on with that blank stare you described, isolated from the mass of humanity surrounding them. Our observations seem to be the only thing connecting one human to another.