The art of people watching becomes finely honed during the holidays

By: Debbie Kelley

December 22, 2017 Updated: December 23, 2017 at 9:24 am

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Families ice skate in Acacia Park on Saturday, January 2, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

“Clearly, then, the city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.” – Desmond Morris, English zoologist, ethologist, surrealist painter and author in human sociobiology

With lively crowds everywhere, people watching becomes a prime-time sport during the holiday season.

Opportune moments to study others happen while waiting in line at the grocery store, resting weary feet at the mall, attending a party or hanging out at the airport.

“It’s human nature,” says Professor Sarah Shaver, who chairs the theater department at Pikes Peak Community College and is a consummate people watcher.

“It’s something to pass the time as well as give meaning to our interactions,” she says. “The deeper I get into observing a person, the more things I find interesting and compelling and want to learn more about them.”

Spotting a couple sharing an intimate moment or having an argument, seeing a mother handle an errant child, or relating to an exasperated person who’s in a hurry often leads onlookers to fill in the blanks.

“That’s the fun of it,” Shaver says.

One of the best places to people watch is Manitou Springs, says Susan Snow, an off-and-on resident of the small town at the base of Pikes Peak.

“We make up stories about people, we wonder what their relationship is to each other, what they are talking about, what kind of day they are having,” she says.

With an eclectic mixture of tourists and residents who include baby boomer hippies, millennial hippies, families and old-timers of diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic status, the community is “a magical place,” says Leslie Lewis, executive director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau.

“Manitou is a great spot to people watch,” Lewis says. “There are people from all over, as well as the locals, and generally they’re in a good mood and having fun.”

The most fun, Snow says, is trying to figure out where people are from, based on what they’re wearing.

“We wonder what their home is like, we listen to the different languages,” she says.

What Snow most enjoys: “When you can catch someone’s eyes and have a spark, a smile, an interest back.”

Colorado Springs resident Tracy Dodson also appreciates taking a break and seeing what unfolds before her eyes.

“I can’t really explain why it’s interesting to me, but I have always loved sitting and just observing people,” she says.

Dodson now runs the place where she’s sat and watched people for years, The Perk Downtown coffee shop.

“We have two older gentlemen who are out front every night, watching the world go by,” she says. “They tell me they love the spot.”

Dodson believes the activity provides a necessary moment to take in the busyness of others.

“I think that we as humans need to slow down and look around us more,” she says. “People watching lets you look at people when they don’t know they are being watched. It lets you see them as they really are. It lets you see people as fellow humans on this journey through life. It’s a good thing.”

“To assess the quality of thoughts of people, don’t listen to their words, but watch their actions.” – author Amit Kalantri, “Wealth of Words”

Outward appearances send multitudes of clues.

“Everything you put on your body is a choice and says something about who you are, who you want to be, who you wish you were,” says Shaver, who has studied the psychology of clothing for her work as a costume designer.

Clothes, jewelry, piercings and tattoos can speak volumes. A wedding ring, a missing wedding ring evidenced by bleached skin, a wedding ring on a chain around the neck or wearing a ring on the right hand instead of the left addresses marital status, for example.

“In the first couple of milliseconds you have all this information about a person, and you form an opinion from that first impression,” Shaver says.

Signs give way to guessing a person’s age, political affiliation, profession, religion, culture, values, priorities, health, state of mind and other insights, she says.

Body language also communicates messages.

“I like to study micro-expressions. If someone says, ‘I’m doing fine’ but has a furrowed brow or you see sadness on their face, you know they’re lying,” Shaver says.

Flaring nostrils indicate disgust, a smile that reaches the eyes shows true joy, and a body tilting away or with arms crossed suggests the need for space.

“We enjoy telling stories and hearing stories, and the more we can put together about a person’s backstory from the clues we observe, the more satisfying it is,” Shaver says.

Shaver uses her astute watchfulness to help her students create characters on stage.

“You can learn a lot by observing fellow human beings,” she says.

The pastime is helpful for other professions as well. Writers have benefited for centuries from watching the ongoings of others, says Thomas Napierkowski, a longtime English professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

He points to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” – which he defines as “one of the great works of English literature by one of the great writers of English literature” – as presenting the quintessential example of people watching.

In the General Prologue, 30 colorful people journey on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury in 14th century England. In a story-within-a-story format, the tales of the characters emerge with many holes to trip the imagination.

For example, a monk character appears to be worldly, but adversities he’s faced suggest otherwise and purport that people ought not be too confident about life because of its uncertainties.

“The first impression we get leads us to anticipate and ponder and analyze the meaning of stories the characters tell,” Napierkowski says. “It’s an interesting game.”

Observation often builds the skills of good writers, Napierkowski says.

“They can create characters who hold our attention and make us want to turn the page. They might make us angry or sad, we might love them or hate them.”

“I like to prowl ordinary places and taste the people – from a distance.” – poet Charles Bukowski, “Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit”

Domestic terrorism and heightened security measures in public places in some ways have changed the pastime. It’s now a job for some, such as Transportation Security Administration staff.

While people watching always has had the potential to degrade from harmless curiosity into criticizing, coveting, gossiping or stalking, profiling now is among the pitfalls.

Paul Harris says he’s often on the receiving end of people’s mistaken impressions.

He’s been living on the streets of Colorado Springs for two years, and says he’s just like anyone else but happens to not have a home at this point in his life.

“Some of them, the way they look at you, you just want to go, ‘Boo,'” he says. “They stare at you like crazy.”

“They look at us like we’re rejects,” chimes in James Calfo, known as “Skeeter.” He’s also homeless.

“Some people are nosy and in everybody’s business,” he says. “Sometimes it agitates me. Other times I just laugh it off.”

More often than not, people watching builds more commonality than division, though.

For Shaver, situations she encounters elicit compassion and perhaps forgiveness.

“If I see a young mother in a state of stress, I might notice she’s wearing two different socks, she’s got a snot smear on her jeans, she looks likes she hasn’t been sleeping and has been through a lot but is still trying to make nice in public. I admire that.

“You see the best and the worst of humanity. You can find them repulsive and reject them or find a little more sympathy and admiration for what they’re going through.”