1. Seek out a crowd. Choose a busy time when your chosen location will be crowded. This allows you to blend in and go virtually unnoticed.
2. Bring writing supplies. Pack a pocket sized notebook and a pen in your pocket or purse. Better yet, use a note taking app on your smart phone.
3. Be open minded. Don’t choose who you are observing outright. If you fixate on one person you might miss the silly thing someone else does or says.
4. Pay careful attention to groups. Who is the “life of the party”? Who is the person who would rather be someplace else? How can you tell?
5. Be stealth. Bring a friend along, but tell them what you are doing. Your occasional chatter will make those around you more comfortable and put you under the radar.
6. Respect boundaries. If you hear something deeply personal, don’t listen too hard. Watch emotions or reactions subtly. You can fill in the gaps of content yourself. You are, after all a writer.
7. Don’t stare. This annoys people and they act less natural when they’re annoyed.
8. Stand in line. One of my favorite things to do is to stand at the back of the line at Panera one Wednesdays. A large group of Seniors flood the place on that day and their grumpy chatter is pure gold.
9. Find the feelings. Notice stress and tension, either in conversation or in actions.
10. Movements matter. Consider body language and how a person handles objects in the environment. For example, did the person destroy their Styrofoam cup during conversation? Could that person be inwardly angry or just really A.D.D?
Here are some samples of my people watching notes. Remember, these are just quick jots that can be fleshed out and can be expanded on later. While people watching, keep your notes simple and brief. Write just enough to activate your memory.
Man and woman at Panera. Neither is wearing rings. I suspect a date. The Woman says she hates salad, “it’s like a crunchy, squishy blob of leaves”. Suddenly, the man opens his brief case and pulls out his Bible. He begins preaching at his companion across the table, though he doesn’t seem aware that he’s making her uncomfortable. She pulls out her phone and begins texting while being preached to. His eyes are on his Bible and he doesn’t even notice. She slides her phone under the table and continues texting. I imagine that she is texting her friend “worst date ever”. She nods periodically to make it look like she’s listening. She shifts in her chairs and, under the table, her thumbs never stop. His voice rises to make his final point but all she hears is the giggling of the five children taking up two tables to her right. She looks up from her texting to smile at the kids. The man sighs, looks up from his Bible and asks “Is it analogy or is it truth?” The women turns her eyes back to him, looking up from the texting she had just returned to. She’s thrown by his statement, realizing that he may have just talked himself into a corner. It was time to speak up. Could she get a word in? Could she make her point or would it only start a new flight pattern of scriptural references flying at her like bats in a disturbed cave?
A group of people at Mimi’s Café. They sit behind us, but I can hear them talking. They complain about one of the women’s boyfriends. She apparently broke up with him because he was too “into video games”. I reasoned that he must have either been obsessed or a game developer. They talked about how he had just been in Japan for a video game conference. I assume the average gamer can’t afford a trip like that and imagine he’s a developer. They must have broken up just before his trip. They were asking if he’d contacted her since his return. She said that she received the thumbs up emoticon on Facebook from him and called him when she received it. She was upset. What did it mean? Was he trying to say he was happy without her? She tells her table of friends “He said that he didn’t mean to send it. It was an accident.” To this, a male friend at the table said “You can’t accidently send an emoticon. Those can’t be faked.”
It was such a strange conversation that I had to write it down. Sometimes people don’t know how weird they are.
I imagined the poor dumped guy and imagined him selling some huge game at the conference that was guaranteed to make him a millionaire. Someday they’d run into each other again. He’d be in a suit and tie surrounded by business men and shelling out a fortune for a gourmet dish and wine. She would be bussing tables next to his to afford rent for her “apartment” in her parent’s basement. He’d notice her, but wouldn’t say a word. She’d be thinking of an emoticon, the facepalm.
Sometimes, your note will have nothing to do with what really happened. For example, once while on a date with my husband, we were seated at a table that another couple had just left. The blond woman who left the table smelled strongly of perfume and she had so much hair that some of it was just looking for reasons and opportunities to jump ship onto the booth cushion. My husband was directed to her former seat. That’s when I began to wonder . . .
Imagine a guy who is in counseling to save his marriage. His wife is unable to go that night so he’s all alone. His counselor calls him back and the room still smells from the last client. He sits in the seat she was in, the only remaining seat in the room. When the husband arrives home he smells of women’s perfume and long blond strands of hair cling to his suit. How would his wife react?
Save whatever you scribble down while observing. You never know when these everyday exchanges could worm their way into your next story.