It was evident from this Washington DC coffee shop’s clientele that it was in a wealthy area. Low-key business meetings seemed to be in progress. As I paid closer attention to the interaction between the members of the groups, the power dynamic became obvious by the way the leaders commanded the subordinates’ attention.
I guessed they were involved in a start-up or worked for a trendy marketing firm by their very fashionable, relaxed dress code. Diamond-encrusted middle-aged women clad in spandex, with their brand-name bags yelled annoyingly over the din into their cellphones about the details of their gym sessions as they flaunted their plastic surgery. I inferred that the people in their mid-20s sitting around me, dressed in preppy clothes working on laptops, must have been law students.
My powers of observation were extra sharp, perhaps enhanced by my coffee, but mostly due to the fact that I had been focusing my attention on people-watching for the past few hours. I had just spent the morning sitting silently in the back of a visa office’s calling room, waiting for my number to be called. I have always been keenly observant, and have a tendency to notice and remember details. With nothing visually stimulating in the bland room besides the other people, I found myself paying close attention to the eclectic group of travellers in an attempt to occupy myself by explaining the background of each person and their reasons for travel.
Our subconscious mind is hardwired to observe our peers and environments without us even realising it, keeping us acutely aware of their body language, energy levels and the presence of immediate danger. People-watching is the deliberate act of observation, and it can be really interesting what you notice; their interactions, body language, expressions, affectations, clothing, accessories and habits. Sometimes this is inadvertently accompanied by eavesdropping and the scent of body odour or perfume. All of this perceptive observation provides an insightful look into people’s lives and the general rhythm of the community. As an outsider visiting an unfamiliar place it can really allow you to get an intuitive feel of things.
While waiting in the visa office, in the row of metallic seats diagonally opposite me, the rapid twitching of a foot bobbing kept drawing my attention. It belonged to a thin, bald man of Asian descent, who, engulfed in an oversized crinkled blue blazer, leaned forward clutching a folder of documents in one hand and his moist number slip in front of him in the other.
Upon closer inspection he looked tired, and from the furrows on his brow and deep lines on his lean, bony face I assumed he was in his 50’s and had lived a hard life. He wore khaki dress pants, no watch and an old black belt. His brown leather shoes were old and worn. I took this as confirmation of my assumption that he was of humble means and was making a concerted effort today to look dignified and presentable with his blazer. I assumed his twitching foot was the subconscious release of nervous energy from the anticipation of the result of whatever he was eagerly seeking to attend to.
I began to wonder more about what his hard life was like? What did he eat for breakfast, if he ate anything at all? What was the type of hard work that I assumed he did for such long hours? What did he enjoy doing? What were his hopes and dreams? What was this important matter that he seemed so eager to resolve? The more details I noticed, the more insight I felt I gained into his life. I imagined myself in his shoes, and the more I watched the more empathy I had for this fellow traveller.
I can’t quite explain it, but if you rest your gaze on someone for too long they seem to be able to have the uncanny ability to sense this. Somehow this fellow traveller knew he was being observed and suddenly turned to meet my gaze. At that moment my first inclination was to look sheepishly away, but I resisted the urge and held his gaze. His deep-set dark eyes glared at me. The tension eased as we both nodded and smiled slightly in acknowledgement. I then politely looked away, as he gave me a glance over as I wondered what assumptions he would make about me.
It is difficult to wrap your mind around the fact that there are over seven billion people alive on this earth, and each one of us has our own unique struggle. We see so many of these different people each day, but do we really see them as fellow people or is it just that our egoistic notion of self defines them as other?