On People Watching


I recently finished my third viewing of Inception, a movie now so ingrained in our collective subconscious that the only people who haven’t seen it are those living under a rock. A literal rock. Cavemen. Cavemen are the only people who haven’t seen this movie.

The film features projections, which are people, objects, landscapes, and other content that are “projected” by the subconscious mind of the sleeper into the dreaming world. Leonardo DiCaprio (who I’m sure you totally remembered was named Cobb in the movie) describes projections as white blood cells, claiming that they will attack anyone who is “messing with” the dream, i.e. architects and others participating in extraction.

I was sitting on a bench today watching as people hurried by me and I couldn’t help feeling like I was an extractor in someone else’s dream. Maybe it was just the fact that I was listening to the Inception soundtrack, and that I haven’t slept well the last few days due to projects and finals, but the atmosphere was surprisingly similar to the scene in which Ariadne walks against a bustling swarm of increasingly serious-faced projections, bumping and jostling them as Cobb explains their purpose.

People don’t smile. Well, people who are walking alone, at least. There will be the occasional group of friends having a conversation, laughing and smiling as they hurry to class, but the majority of people who are alone take on a cold, calculating look. Eyes forward, heads slightly down, they walk like automatons, stressed to the max. They powerwalk briskly and aggressively, as if perpetually behind schedule.

It’s not just on campus, either. When I’m walking around town, getting groceries at the local supermarket, writing blog posts in the university library between finals because it’s been too long since I’ve last uploaded one – everywhere is precisely the same. Quiet and dismal, people go about their business with their face smashed into a screen and their free hand stuffed deep in a pocket, only looking up to avoid slamming into someone else doing precisely the same thing.

Perhaps this isn’t so bad. We’re all busy people with lives, and we don’t have the luxury of living in small, close-knit groups. If we had to stop and greet everybody we saw on an average night downtown, we wouldn’t make it two city blocks.

It still baffles me, though. The ease with which we dismiss the lives of others, that is. It’s strange that I haven’t met the majority of the people living in my apartment complex. I know the folks on my row, at least. But that’s only three units. Three units out of twenty-four. I have lived in the same apartment for the last three years and I still don’t even know the people who share my South wall, and the only times I’ve spoken to my neighbor on the Westward side were when my music became a bit too loud.

I know the neighbors on the ends fairly well, and I’ve had a few late night discussions with them when I have gone to grab the mail or some such errand. They are fascinating people. One of them used to be in the Navy, and she has many stories of her times in the armed forces. We have had long discussions on relationships and life, her age bringing wisdom and my youth bringing spirit. But the other twenty-two units attached to mine remain a mystery.

Even my language sounds dehumanizing. I called them “units” not homes. Many of them have Christmas trees in preparation for the holiday season. Many of them have bicycles or small potted plants decorating their doorsteps. Each one of those units contains living, breathing human beings with hopes and dreams and stories and struggles – most of whom live within 50 feet of my doorstep – and yet I will never meet them.

A girl was watching me as I played the piano in the student center today. The piano sits in a large glass box overlooking part of the dining commons, and she was watching from below, studying at a table. She would smile up at me and clap silently when I finished a piece, and periodically throughout. Every once in a while someone will stop to listen as she did, but this is a rarity. Contrast the lovely woman applauding my playing with the knotty-haired girl smoking next to the air intake (hautily ignoring me), or the window washer loudly butchering Slipknot vocals as he shined the glass behind the piano. We have become experts at ignoring people. Even the girl who applauded me was sure to avoid me after I had finished playing and started eating my Panda Express.

Watching the sunken, dead-eyed stares of the daily commuters shuffling to class, I realize I must be one of the few people on campus who actually smiles. Anytime I walk past a fellow student I make it a point to look at them and smile, with an open posture and a nonchalant disposition. Invariably, they will return the gesture with an obvious and feigned performance – pretending they haven’t seen me – and quickening their pace. I’m not sure when smiling became a cultural taboo, but I hope it makes a comeback.

If all of this sounds too anecdotal, I encourage you to conduct an experiment. I’ve done so in the past at my local library, and the rules are simple:

  • Sit somewhere in a highly trafficked area, like near the bottom of a stairwell or near the entrance
  • Smile at every person who walks by, keeping a tally of how many see you, and how many smile back
  • Once you have a good sample set, run a few quick percentages, and there you have it. A “smile index” – if you will – of the area you chose.


My results for the campus library on a typical November day suggest that no more than 5% of people are going to smile back.

Perhaps your results will be different. If you do decide to practice this exercise, be sure to let me know your results and where you collected them. This isn’t exactly an exact science, so your findings may wildly fluctuate as compared to my own.

While this post wasn’t meant to be a call-to-arms, it might as well be one. As we speak, I am watching a young man help an elderly woman with a touch screen to print out some documents, patiently explaining the process as she smiles at his kindness. These are the kinds of gestures that have the power to brighten someone’s entire day, or entire life. In a world of cold, emotionless ignorers, even the smallest sliver of interaction will not go unnoticed. So lend a helping hand, or tell someone you’ve never met to have a nice day.

And would it kill you to smile?


One thought on “On People Watching

  1. I loosely did this by the door of Target a few days ago and I would completely agree with your 5% findings. My highlight was making one girl who did make eye contact blush. Her extreme reaction suggests to me she doesn’t get smiled at much, which is just disappointing.

    I’m performing in a Christmas musical this weekend and one of the best parts is the large village scene where we smile at each other while mingling and say things like, “It’s so lovely to see you today. I hope you have a fabulous Christmas!” Yes, theatre is partly fiction, but my day is always brightened when these types of ultra-positive interactions occur in daily life.

    A call to arms indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

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