People fascinate me.

I could sit in a café and people-watch for hours. Does that make me a creeper? No, I like to think it makes me an observational sociologist.

The first time I realized that observing people go about their lives could actually qualify as valid research in the field of sociology was in a first year introduction to sociology class. Studying subcultures, we were asked to perform a systematic observational analysis of a group of our choice. This involved observing and making note of human behaviour and interactions in a social setting and preparing a report to outline our findings. It was without a doubt the most entertaining assignment I’d worked on to that point in my academic career, and I was so enthusiastic to begin that I set out right after class to sit and watch people at a popular Bridgehead coffee shop on one of Ottawa’s main streets.

After several hour long sessions of people-watching-for-credit, I noticed regulars who came into the shop every day. I also observed newcomers who navigated their way through sometimes confusing lineup encounters, or who felt intimidated while choosing a drink among Bridgehead’s vast array of fair-trade coffees and teas. In a bilingual city, I also noted that when encountering a stranger, people automatically revert to English when meeting someone new, or converse in French when discussing more intimate matters with friends at a table within close proximity of another. The jig is up, I can still understand you.

Periodically throughout my observing, someone would notice that it had been a while that I’d been staring straight ahead, not really doing anything seemingly productive. But over all, besides a sidelong glance or two, no one really noticed me at all. Mostly, people were too involved in what they were doing to notice the little dark haired girl in the corner scribbling on a note pad. This brings me to another sociological truth I learned about in a subsequent class about social psychology: the spotlight effect. Evidently, one always thinks that people notice potential social gaffes more than they really do. Not only that, but in general, people don’t spend too much time thinking about what an anonymous stranger is doing beyond the moment an action actually happens. We all tend to think that people are judging us when maybe they only notice us for a fleeting moment in time. People, as a general rule, are more concerned with mastering their own appearance, with perfecting what Erving Goffman would have referred to as their performance, fulfilling their own social role. It isn’t self-centered egotism that drives the spotlight effect but merely the fact that most people are their own harshest critics. I, for one, am most certainly guilty of this phenomenon.

Though I didn’t realize at first that my understanding of this sociology assignment would go far beyond what I learned in that first year course, I can now look back at it in the context of further learnings. My grade on the paper was nowhere near my regular standard, perhaps due to the fact that I wrote it in French, but I still think about that assignment, and not in the negative way I might have expected of myself. I will always be a people-watcher, whether or not I’m being graded on it. And though I did notice people doing odd things at that coffee shop on the cold November days I sat and observed, I didn’t judge them, I just observed human beings doing what they do best: living their lives.

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