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Watching Strangers

The task:

Find a public space (mall, library, coffee shop) where you feel comfortable observing a person or small group of people - people you don't know. Write for 10 minutes as a field note. Use descriptive language and work for accuracy. Write about you notice: see, hear, smell, feel. How did you approach this task? What was difficult for you and what will you do about it? How might describing a person relate to your role as a researcher? What did you learn about yourself?

It's a bit of a stretch to say I'm 'comfortable' observing a person or group who doesn't know what I am doing, but here we go.


It's Saturday morning and I am in an car dealership where I'm getting my winter tires installed. I have a few minutes in public along with various staff either busy at their desk or wandering around waiting for potential car-buyers. There is a rather bland, but not 'elevator music' radio station playing, probably via satellite as it isn't a local station that I recognize. There are four banks of two TVs playing muted commercials for the brand.

There is a large reception desk in front of me staffed by one person who appears to be in her 20s or 30s. It is hard to tell because I can really only see the top half of her face over the counter. She is busy, or at least appears to be busy at her computer. Immediately behind her is a more elevated desk staffed by what appears to be some sort of office manager. I can only see the very top of his shaved head.

Moments ago a salesman wandered over to speak with the office manager. He is relatively tall (I walked past him earlier and he's taller than me) and the top of the desk is at the height of his chin, so when he was talking to the manager, he put the fingers of both his hands on the top of the desk and appeared to lean his chin on his hands. He has now moved behind the desk to speak with the manager, presumably from a better vantage point.

The salesman appears to be a veteran in auto sales. He is likely in his late 50s or early 60s, and his doctor likely tells him to lose weight.

There are few interactions between staff that I can see, but the ones that I do notice are all quiet and muted.

The office manager is standing up, looking directly at me and speaking on a mobile phone (somewhat unnerving), and I can see that he is dressed in a dark business suit with a silver tie.


As there are not many people around me, it's difficult to observe carefully without my subjects realizing that I am writing about them. to get around this, I do a lot of peripheral staring (is that even a thing?) where I appear to be looking at my computer or one of the TVs, but am actually paying attention to what someone is doing or who they are speaking with. I know that even if someone walks by behind me, it is unlikely that anyone will recognize that I am writing about them because I am not using a typical word processor like MS Werd, but rather a text editor that looks like I'm writing code, so people don't usually clue in to the fact that I am writing a narrative.

Observing as a researcher

This observation task has me thinking about sources of bias and the assumptions that observers make about actions and intent. For example, at one point, the person at the reception desk reached for and grabbed something from the edge of her desk. I thought it might have been a purse or something else personal, but a few minutes later she returned it and it turned out to be a binder, which totally changes the context of her actions.

The height of the desk makes an interesting barrier to me fully appreciating the context of her actions. What initially looked like someone who was bored with nothing to do trying to engage in something of a personal nature (checking her phone or something) was actually a person engaging in work-related tasks, presuming, that is, that the binder was work-related. so many assumptions.


I am typically rather introverted in public settings and will avoid unnecessary small-talk. I do enjoy 'people-watching' while I am out and about. However, adding the layer of recording my observations seems somehow more intrusive than just watching people.