Look Out: Human Observation Ideas

sitting by window

If you’re looking for a hobby or just feeling bored, try human observation.

When observing other people, I use my mind in certain ways. I not only observe but think.

My modus operandi is to look out from the living room window of my apartment.

Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window
Jimmy Stewart as protagonist in “Rear Window.”

This actually reminds me of the classic old movie “Rear Window.”  The main character is a wheelchair-bound photographer who looks out at his neighbors using binoculars.

It gets suspenseful when he thinks he sees evidence of a murder.

I haven’t seen any evidence of murder from my window (and hope I never do). Fortunately, these days I think even “ordinary” things witnessed are often interesting.

One of the benefits of being more observant is being less self-conscious. I used to be very self-conscious because I wasn’t observant and was too wrapped up in myself.  But now I happily notice stuff around me more, which also makes me more comfortable in my own skin.

As I said, I like to watch the world from my window, so you don’t necessarily have to go anywhere to practice being observant.

You can observe people from the comfort of home and become more socially confident at the same time.

Observing and Thinking

man thinking
Thinking while observing is a good way to learn.

There’s a bus stop across the street from where I live. This means I can observe people standing there waiting.

And of course, I can also watch others who for whatever reason are just hanging around outside.

What do I think about when I observe people that helps me socially?

Well, since I can generally only see people and not hear them, eavesdropping on conversation isn’t possible.

So instead, one thing I pay particular attention to is body language. I come to understand social interaction better in that way.

Another thing is as I look out, I visualize.

Body Language Observations

A few days ago, I saw two people standing near a house across the street, chatting.  They looked like they were familiar and comfortable with each other.

person sitting on bench
This guy has his arms folded, but he looks comfortable and open to conversation to me. Can you imagine starting a conversation with him and what you’d say?

One man had his arms folded across his chest. Although this way of arranging the arms is considered closed and unfriendly, I didn’t see it that way in this particular case. I thought this man still looked amicable towards his fellow conversationalist.

I just might adopt the arms folded across the chest pose myself when standing and conversing with someone. I imagine it would make me feel in control and poised.

(I think whether one particular aspect of body language appears open and friendly or not depends on other aspects of nonverbal communication. If the man I saw was frowning, then having arms folded across the chest would certainly be unfriendly.)

The other man had his hands in his pockets. He also appeared relaxed, even though hands in pocket is generally considered insecure body language. But he didn’t look insecure to me, so there are exceptions to this rule.

I also think having hands in pocket would be okay for me–as long as my body language overall is relaxed rather than stiff.

Mental Images

Shortly after, I saw a group of people standing at the bus stop. They seemed brash and loud, though I couldn’t decipher what they said. I watched them and then used my mind to visualize standing there myself at the bus stop near this group of people. I imagined carrying myself with self-assurance next to them.

I then took a brief break and turned on the television set, but the television shows weren’t even as interesting as looking out the window.

woman at bus stop
Can you imagine yourself starting a conversation with her? What might you say?

So I went back to the window. I noticed the rowdy group of people were gone and in their place was an individual. Again, I imagined being there at the bus stop, standing near this other person, carrying myself in a self-assured way. I even imagined saying something about her shoes. We then had a brief (imaginary) interaction based on my initial comment.

It’s important to note that I felt no anxiety during my imaginary social interaction. Having no anxiety during an imaginary social episode means there will be little or no anxiety when having future real-life conversations.

I find it’s easier to visualize new social behaviors and interacting with others when I’m looking at real people rather than, say, closing my eyes and trying to imagine something that has absolutely no real foundation.

This technique of visualizing while looking at real people also works when out in the world. Earlier today, for example, I was on the bus and took the opportunity to observe another passenger while she was looking down at her cell phone. She wasn’t sitting next to me but at some distance, and I watched her (without staring). I thought about what I might say to her to start a conversation and imagined carrying on a brief conversation exchange.

It All Begins In the Head

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And imagination is a mental tool which, as I’ve described, can be effectively combined with observation.

imaginary people
You can go to a location and imagine talking with people, even if there’s nobody actually there. Being in a locale makes the visualization seem more real.

I had said how it’s easier to use my imagination to visualize interacting if I’m looking at real people rather than closing my eyes and trying to imagine.

However, I also find that it’s easier to visualize, even when there’s no one actually around, if I keep my eyes open rather than closed.  I imagine  “phantom people.”

Unlike looking out the window, imagining “phantom people” works better for visualizing if I’m in a public place. For instance, if I’m sitting in a park and no one is actually nearby, I can create an imaginary person with whom I start a conversation with in my head.

I know some people like to close their eyes and do visualization “from scratch”, but I find it easier to visualize with my eyes open and seeing something in front of me, whether it be real people or real scenery.

I call visualizing conversations in the ways I’ve described “imaginary exposure therapy.” Exposure therapy is effective, whether the conversations are real or imagined.

Ordinary But Not Ho-Hum

So being observant can be used in several ways to improve social skills.

But besides this, being observant is wonderful in itself.

As I mentioned, I generally can’t hear people through the window when they’re talking outside, though that’s not always the case. I mean, if someone is being loud or shouting, then I can hear them.

dog driving
You never know what you’ll see if you’re observant. You might even notice a dog driving.

The other day when I was looking out the window, I saw a man across the street get into a truck.

The man then yelled, “Get in the f**king car!”

I saw a big dog get into the back seat.

The man then turned around to look at the dog grumpily and drove off.

I know, I know, this guy could have been nicer to his dog, but I understand because sometimes I’m grumpy too towards my cat. But I’m still basically nice.

Anyway, I was amused by this mundane scene on the “viewing screen” of my window.

It goes to show that even “ordinary” happenings can be ENTERTAINING, sometimes as much as or even more so than movies.

10 Replies to “Look Out: Human Observation Ideas

  1. thank you for the interesting article about observation and visualization.
    In the first minute or reading, i felt that it is not an important thing, but when i started reading about real cases of observation and how you start visualize their conversion.
    I enjoyed a lot, really many thanks to you and of the important information about changing behavior by using that technique.

    1. Thank you, Haitham, for your honesty about how you felt the article was unimportant in the very beginning of reading but after a minute found it important and thought it a useful technique that I describe based on my own experimentation. Yes, external behavior always stems from internal thoughts and feelings, so practicing from the inside out is an additional method to overcoming social anxiety and may be more doable prior to taking action on real-life “exposure therapy.”

  2. Very interesting article! I like to observe people too but didn’t realize I could benefit from it. I also like to observe people in their cars at stoplights. Just think, they have lives that are completely separate from your own! I haven’t practiced having conversations with them, but I will now. Thanks again for your insightful article!

    1. Thank you, walker2, appreciate it. Yes, observing people is fun, isn’t it? 🙂 It also keeps one from being self-obsessed and self-conscious. Indeed, observing other humans is fun and beneficial and a good way to practice conversation skills and feel more confident. As Robin Sharma says, “Everything is created twice, first in the mind and then in reality.”

  3. An interesting article!

    I have to agree, being from the London, the city where strangers rarely engage one another, body language can play a big part in finding the guts to communicate with someone…

    I do believe that a lot of it is imaginary and it is just a culture that we have molded for ourselves from general beliefs. Too many people these days are too locked in to socializing with closed groups of people and social media for communicating with one another…

    1. Thanks, Kev. Yes, body language makes a big difference in our confidence. And I like to observe, model and imagine what works and what doesn’t. I think modeling social behavior is a way children learn social behavior unconsciously anyway (if they’re observant). However, I was never an observant child and tended to live in my own world, so to speak. Being observant is something recent for me and I enjoy learning from observation–and find it as interesting these days as watching movies. It’s great how it can be entertaining as well as educational.

  4. Hi Jean, I found your post fascinating. I have been so busy in my mind lately that I fear I have been incredibly unobservant of the world around me. As an out and out extrovert I’m not much of an observer anyway.
    I think I should cultivate this habit of yours and see what I learn about people (and myself).

    1. Thanks, Lauren. Your comment makes me think. I suppose you can be non-observant if you’re a super-extrovert as well as a super-introvert. However, a super-introvert would have more of a tendency to “live in one’s own world.” I speak from my own experience when I was young. It’s not until late in life that my mind has been noticing things. Yes, sometimes we need to stop and observe–or smell the roses, so to speak.

  5. I found your article very fascinating as observing and watching people has always been something I love to do – I just didn’t realise that you could improve you social skills in the process.
    After reading this now, I think I will observe people differently and use the techniques you have mentioned. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Teresa. Yes, being observant and watching people makes one less socially anxious, as I’ve found. As for me, I wasn’t very observant until recent. Then I started using my imagination when observing and that added an additional dimension to it. One can become a great communicator while observing and rehearsing conversation.

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