Writing and The Fine Art of People-Watching

Sitting in a public place watching the world go by, many of us take a casual interest in our fellow human beings as a pastime. Glancing at a man in a suit, taking in his demeanour and facial expression, we may hazard a guess at his ‘type’ or perhaps what he may do for a living, but in general we take no further interest unless we perceive a threat of some sort, or discern distress, then we pay more attention.

This is an example watching people, but not of people-watching.

As opposed to the watcher of people, the people-watcher is a different breed. Train-spotters, birdwatchers, storm-chasers, and people-watchers take an in-depth interest in their subjects. Desmond Morris in his book ‘Peoplewatching’, describes people-watchers as ‘students of human behaviour’ and as ‘field observers’ who want to learn the intricacies of behaviour. They study body language, gestures, speech patterns, and in the same way birdwatchers do, they may categorise the person being watched, perhaps by their plumage, by patterns of behaviour and use of certain gestures.

Spending a weekend at a Classic Motorcycle show twice a year, (my husband, ‘The Bearded Wonder’ has a lot to answer for), I have a splendid time dividing the huge crowds of bikers into several distinct groups, based on external factors such as style of dress, attitude, bearing, and cleanliness. Very arbitrary, I know. 

Here’s what I have come up with over the past few years: There are ‘The Gnomers’: so-called because they looked like my mother’s least favourite garden ornament. Woolly hat with point, scruffy beard, baggy clothing. More often than not, they mooch around in male pairs.

‘The TT-ers’: altogether smarter, dressed in Gortex-type jackets bearing the fluorescent name of their chosen bike manufacturer, baseball caps, and sensible footwear. On the whole they are clean -shaven and often have wife and family in tow.

‘The Shiners’: simply ooze money. Expensive all-in-one leathers, squeaking and creaking as they stride past, rucksacks on, boots clean, chins and heads shaved, confident as they forge through the crowds in the direction of Bonham’s auctions with their monied counterparts, ‘The Tweedy-Belstaff Brigade’. They too wear their wealth in obvious ways. Moleskin trousers or expensive jeans, tweed or Belstaff jackets that cost a small fortune. Most of them arrive by car and go home with ‘investments’ to add to their motorcycle collections. Often accompanied by wife or floozy in matching tweed and expensive leather boots.

Into the mix go ‘The Rockabilly Throwbacks’ and the boiler-suited ‘Oil Rag Old Timers’ and the weekends can make for a most interesting way to spend my time. 

People-watching is a fascinating subject and key for fiction writers seeking to develop well-rounded and believable characters. Writers are told to make sure we read widely and study human nature. We can’t all be psychologists, but we can make the everyday world a classroom in which to study human behaviour.

 As human beings, we are designed to take an interest in our fellow man and many of our actions and behaviours are learnt. Therefore they can change over time – consider the toddler tantrums, the teenage sulks, the happy couple, the grumpy old curmudgeon … I rest my case. But how do people-watchers begin their studies?

Usually the face is where we start our analysis, more specifically the eyes.

What do eyes tell us and are they really the window to the soul as we have been led to believe? 

Looking at someone’s eyes, sadness and happiness are relatively easy to perceive; tears can indicate both extremes. In my experience, ‘crocodile tears’ are relatively easy to spot because of the lack of other facial and postural clues. They give the pretender away as being untrustworthy. 

Arched eyebrows and a wide smile are sure signs of happiness and the eyes themselves may have enlarged pupils, showing interest or love.

But watch out for those pupils decreasing in size, you may be boring the person you are talking to…

Our eyes can also reveal if we are lying.  When asked a question we often move our eyes, processing information, thinking. If a person moves their eyes up and to the left as they answer, they are more than likely telling the truth. If the eyes move up and right… a lie could be the reason why.

It’s natural to give intermittent eye contact, and an unwavering stare is seen as either intimidating or intimate, depending on who you happen to be with at the time. An unblinking stare is downright disconcerting.

Conversely, a rapid blink rate can indicate stress (aside from eye health problems). And a wink is seen as a cheeky form of flirting or a conspiratorial gesture – although not in all cultures.

Wide eyes and an ‘O’ shaped mouth indicates fear, whereas a narrowing of the eyes is a negative response such as disbelief, disgust or distaste often accompanied by the narrowing of the lips as anger rises.

Actions to disguise our true feelings often involve ‘blocking’ the eyes by lowering the gaze, covering the eyes with a hand, or turning away. This could be through shame and embarrassment or telling a ‘white’ lie, or when trying not to laugh.

Suspicion can be seen in a frown, a shift in focus, a narrowing of the eyes.

And so on…

It has to be acknowledged that these subconscious ways in which our eyes express our feelings don’t occur in isolation. Indeed, with an arch of an eyebrow, a tilt of the head, a thrust of the chin, we convey many more emotions and they in turn form part of the wider language we use, both verbal and behavioural. 

When I look at the faces of the bikers as they shuffle past the stalls and displays at the Motorcycle Show, I’m not simply categorising people, in fact I’m carrying out more in-depth studies. And don’t get me started on speech and language … goodness me.

It’s a good job nobody can read my mind… or can they? Perhaps my body language gives me away.

Next time: Hands and Arms; common gestures and interesting stories behind some of them.

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