Beyond People Watching

I love to travel but I hate airports. Rather, I hate security, but love meeting new people. Before landing at my destination, I try to make friends with at least one person at the gate as well as my seat mate on the plane. Just this past week I traveled to Atlanta for work, and made two new friends. I got their numbers so we can stay in contact.

As writers, we’re told to People Watch in order to generate new ideas, and build our characters from composite details of those who pass in and out of our sight, let alone in and out of our lives. Freelance writer Julie Guirgis wrote a piece on people watching for Writers Weekly, where she explained “The aim of people watching is to try to guess another person’s story just from mere observation […] People watchers notice speech-in-action, relationship interactions, body language and activities. […You] interpret people’s actions, watch for connections between people and search for tensions. Eavesdrop on arguments and watch the body language that accompanies these heated moments.”

You can learn a lot from snooping and eavesdropping and letting your imagination run wild with possibility. But you are also limited by your own knowledge and experience. Even unintentionally you might fall into assuming harmful stereotypes about a person’s race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. You don’t want these assumptions to color the details you collect or influence the characters you build. People watching is great for collecting details, but it doesn’t give you the same story as talking with another person.

I know it isn’t always safe for everyone to approach a stranger, and I know there are many reasons to be afraid based on our identities. I don’t go around telling people I’m queer or Jewish, for instance, and I recognize my privilege in being able to pass in so many areas where I can talk with strangers and not feel afraid. Please, gauge your own comfort level. Please, protect yourself.

Often when I initiate conversation with a stranger I am struck by how different our beliefs, backgrounds and opinions are. And that’s great! From what I do reveal about myself (my work, where I went to college) I can only hope my partner is learning something from me as well. Like writing, it’s about learning and connecting to someone who is not you. When else would I get a chance to talk to a woman in the Navy? Or a woman grieving for her mother, who will tell a stranger about her comfort in reading the Bible? How about the airline stewardess who went to an airline academy (I didn’t even know this type of school existed!) but was almost hired by a cruise ship?

More than details, these are stories. And as a writer, I have learned so much about different regions of the country and the world, and the lives of those I’ll probably never see again and might always disagree with.

Many of us will travel this week for Thanksgiving; if you are comfortable, try to start a conversation with a stranger. You’ll be surprised by what you assumed from watching them, and what you learn from speaking with them.

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