People Watching

Commutes can be tedious at times, but with portable electronic devices at hand, most of us find a variety of ways to entertain ourselves. In fact, so many of us do that these days that there’s a Chinese term, ditouzu, for the group of people addicted to their phones, which loosely translates to “heads-down tribe”. I can’t deny the fact that I’m occasionally a member of that “tribe”, but as a so-called millennial who grew up in the pre-internet days, I sometimes find it a bit sad that we use portable handheld devices as a way of avoiding human contact. Certainly, they are convenient for those times we don’t feel like interacting with others, but we also lose the chance to notice interesting people we may come across in our daily life.

So, something I do from time to time is people watching. I know, it might sound a bit creepy and some people may think it’s sort of off-putting, but before deciding it’s not for you, please hear me out. It is natural to observe people around you. Sometimes it includes eavesdropping, but most of the time, it’s just seeing an interesting person, or people, who pique my interest due to some idiosyncrasies either because of the way they dress or the way they act.

An example of casual people watching that happens relatively frequently is when I notice that an elderly person has gotten onto a crowded train that I’m in. If I have a seat, I have to decide if I need to get up to offer them my seat. If I’m standing, I usually watch them for a minute or two, to see the reactions of those who are sitting or standing around them. Sometimes it warms my heart to see kids, or multiple people get up to offer their seats, and sometimes I find myself feeling frustrated and powerless when nobody makes any effort to get up. This is one of those instances where I learned something about myself.

Then there are times when it is merely entertainment. One of those times, the person sitting next to me got off he train, and the boyfriend of a couple who appeared to be in their mid-twenties sat down. It was a bit surprising for me to see the man sit down so quickly without even offering the seat to his girlfriend, so I found myself listening to them as soon as they started talking.

The girlfriend noticed a sign for an English school on the side of the train above us, and out of the blue, she said, “I want to learn English.” The boyfriend replied, “Oh yeah? I don’t.” She said, “Why not?” “I don’t like English.” She pressed on. “But, what if you suddenly get transferred overseas?” He casually responded, “Nah, that’s unlikely.” I started sensing a hint of annoyance in her tone. “Then what if I get transferred? You’d need to learn it!” The boyfriend was either clueless or way too used to handling her hypothetical questions, because he casually said, “Huh? Why would I?” For a brief moment, her mouth hung open in disbelief, ready to blow a fuse if clueless boyfriend makes one more wrong move. She snapped, “Because you’d move abroad with me, right?” I held my breath.

“Well, yeah, I would if it happens. But, it’s not like you’re actually being transferred. And even if you were, it might even not be an English speaking country that you’d be going to.”

I stifled a laugh. I wanted to high-five the guy.

It took her a second to think. “Oh, that’s true.” She said in a soft voice as she laughed, thoroughly convinced by her boyfriend’s calm but logical argument.

It kind of reinforced some gender stereotypes, but it really was just interesting to see some trivial everyday drama. Humans’ love for people watching is why reality TV shows are so popular. There’s just something intrinsically fascinating about observing others. It’s a trait we picked up as kids, because that’s how we picked up on social cues.

So, put down your phone and look around you once in a while. Did you know there are so many ways to people watch?



off-putting (adj.) ? unpleasant or repellent
hear out (phr. v) ? to listen to someone until they have said everything they want to say
pique one’s interest (phr.) ? to make someone interested in something and want to know more about it
idiosyncrasy (n) ? a strange or unusual habit, way of behaving, or feature that someone or something has
stifle (v) ? to prevent something from happening, being expressed, or continuing
intrinsically (adv.) ? in an essential or natural way