Dear Queer Diary: Notes From An Inveterate People-Watcher

Dear Queer Diary_Rory Midhani_640px

My grandfather is an avid birdwatcher, and when I was yet a wee thing, a typical afternoon with Papa Dave consisted of a walk through the forest/fields/swamps toting my special child-sized binoculars in search of avian life. This was one of those grandparental bonding activities that I eventually grew out of—by the time I hit thirteen or fourteen, the sight of a nesting grouse no longer provided sufficient compensation for the discomforts of wading through itchy grass under the hot sun. But while I left the black-billed magpies and sagebrush sparrows in my past, those early ornithological sessions engendered in me an aptitude for observation that I have been able to adapt to certain other (air-conditioned) environments.

No, this is not a column about birding journals. (Via Bird Watcher’s Digest)

No, this is not a column about birding journals. (Via Bird Watcher’s Digest)

I consider myself to be a star people-watcher — I’ve only just stopped short of preparing my acceptance speech for the award for Best People-Watcher in a Mid-Sized New England Coffee Shop, a distinction that recognizes excellence in observation, eavesdropping, and a deep and abiding fascination with utter strangers. Some of my favorite places to people watch include the grocery store, where I am fascinated by the contents of people’s carts, and the airport, where I have been known to spend layovers wondering where that man in the three-piece suit is going and what possessed him to wear a vest in the middle of July.

Last week, I visited one of my favorite bakeries on planet earth, an establishment whose lack of WiFi only enhances my ability to devote my full attention to the people sitting at the tables around me. While in residence, I spent a good hour and half creeping on the generally adorable people eating cakes and sipping artistically prepared lattes around me. There was the older man with the cup of black coffee, the twenty-something reading some very large textbooks, and the beautifully queer-looking ladies (in hiking boots) rehashing some serious workplace drama (there were tears right there in the bakery!).

Although I didn’t take this picture, I have definitely eaten this cake. (Via The V Life)

Although I didn’t take this picture, I have definitely eaten this cake. (Via The V Life)

The tables were arranged in such a way that I couldn’t help but overhear their conversations, and it seemed only natural to glance up in between nibbles of lemon currant scone to observe certain details. Before I knew it, I was describing the people around me in the middle of the journal entry I had started when I sat down. Once I started listening, I was hooked—trying to figure out exactly what the relationship was between the two women to my left and why the girl in front of me looked so excited.

Although I’m aware that this isn’t necessarily a hobby of which my elementary school teacher would have approved, I’m more than happy to defend it. Yes, I have always had trouble minding my own beeswax; however, I’m of the belief that this is a sign of my natural curiosity and appreciation for the individual qualities of the people around me rather than any kind of immoral tendencies. And though it is entirely true that writing in one’s journal is a great cover for seriously stealthy people-watching, I think the connection between people watching and my dear queer diary actually goes beyond that.

Journaling is an activity that requires us to think, at least subconsciously, about what it means to be a person. In the pages of my diary, I hash out my priorities, contemplate what it meant when so-and-so said such-and-such, and try to understand where I have come from, where I am going. Some of these same questions are naturally raised in the process of observing people being people, whether it is in a coffee shop, on a park bench, or at the library. Why did she use that tone? What was he hoping to achieve by carrying that particular briefcase?

This is an amazing example of the intersection of people and journals. (Via Sketchbuch)

This is an amazing example of the intersection of people and journals. (Via Sketchbuch)

Arguably, the relationship between the people-watcher and her people-watch-ee is analogous to the relationship we have with ourselves while we are journaling—we take a step back from doing what we are doing in order to observe ourselves, to notice (and write about) our actions and our moods. In my mid-size New England coffee shops, I am a reporter on the human condition, a detective of caffeine-ingesting individuals; in my journal, I am a reporter on and a detective of me, myself, and I.

In fact, eavesdropping is a common assignment for actors and fiction writers — I have taken classes in which I’ve been instructed to go and find a conversation to “overhear” in the hopes that this will allow us to create truer characters or more authentic dialogue. If people-watching helps an actor understand a character for the stage, why wouldn’t it help a person understand herself in the pages of her journal?

What are your favorite people-watching locales? Have you ever found yourself writing in your journal about the conversation of the people next to you? Are you disturbed by my utter lack of regard for the privacy of the people around me? What say you journaling geniuses?

Dear Queer Diary is a column about the joys (and occasionally, the pains) of journaling. We crack open our tiny notebooks and break out the rainbow-colored pens on the regular, so get ready to limber up your writing hands and document all your beautiful feelings!

Header by Rory Midhani

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Maggie is a freckly, punctuation-loving queer living in the Boston area. She supports her book-buying and tea-drinking habits by teaching America’s youth how to write topic sentences and spends her free time writing postcards and making sandwiches for her girlfriend.

Maggie has written 53 articles for us.


  1. My favourite spots for people watching are: Airport arrivals, trains various and benches on large pedestrianised areas. When I worked in Glasgow my ex/friends and I used to make up stories for the folks walking by us on Sauchiehall street. Spies and love affairs abounded in our imaginations. I’ve (creepily?) drawn people I’ve seen (mainly because they happened to be in my eye line) but never written about them other than description of clothing, carriage, build etc. But folks are fascinating. I don’t mean to eavesdrop but I do. I often feel like writing down snatches of conversation like the guy from Underworld did for Born Slippy which was a party anthem of my youth.

  2. …I’m glad I’m not the only person who does this. As an artist I really enjoy people watching to look at new facial features, fashion, and get a sense of personality from these people. I often like to incorporate them into doodles, and sometimes even my own characters!

  3. I used to people watch in coffee shops when I was an undergrad ALL the time. My favorite was the time I saw two girls on a date(?) and one was trying to introduce the other to Autostraddle but the other girl wouldn’t go on it in the coffee shop because it sounded like a porn site to her.

  4. People-watching is the best! I’m so much better at that than I am at people-talking or people-meeting…

    Also, I love that picture of the bird-watching journal! It reminds me of when I used to draw pictures of plants/animals/the carbon cycle on my science homework in an attempt to get extra credit.

  5. Yesterday at university I watched two people converse in sign language from behind my laptop. I could only see one side of the exchange (one half of the pair had their back to me) and I don’t know sign language, but I really wish I could have understood the conversation. It was a very interesting thing to watch in a world where so much of our communication is audible.

  6. I started people watching because I needed to work on my figure drawing and didn’t have a local figure drawing session to attend. I would sit on campus, listen to classical music, and draw people walking by. This practice actually helped me get through a really horrible semester because it’s a meditation and I spent hours at a time doing it. I like to photograph people more than I like to draw them. People really fascinate me.

  7. My favorite places to people watch are fast food places… and by that I mostly mean the McDonald’s by my house. It’s a slice of my neighborhood that you don’t get sitting in the hipster coffee shops. I once eavesdropped on an exorcism at that McDonald’s. You just never know what’s going to happen.

    That being said, from the perspective of the eavesdroppee, I’ve had a lot of really awkward conversations in coffee shops that I’d like to hope people mostly chose not to listen to. I met someone in a coffee shop in the middle of a mental health crisis that I couldn’t figure out how to solve, so you can imagine what that was like. I also told a friend (in a very busy local place) that I missed her wedding because I was in the hospital. It’s one of those things… you don’t want to have those conversations completely in private, because that makes it way too intense, but you don’t want to think too hard about the fact that people might overhear you either.

    Bonus story: Yesterday I met a very direct, sweet, well intentioned friend for lunch and we ending up talking about an inappropriate for most people topic in a not-insignificant amount of detail. I didn’t want to shut down the conversation, because most people are way too skittish to even entertain it, but I just kept looking around and praying that no one was listening. (We were right next to the register. I’m sure the people who work there overheard some/all of it.)

  8. Bookstores! My favorite large local bookstore has little microcosms all its own (the folks who go check out the review copies the night they’re put out, hipsters looking at art books but never buying, art students, cute nerdy teenagers buying thick genre novels, self-help addicts…)

  9. I defenitely do this as well. I always have my journal with me, as it fits perfectly in my brown leather paperboy bag. I like to people watch because it’s a little peek into the lives of the people around you. Sometimes I journal about what I see and hear. My favorite place to people watch is at the park by my house, or my favorite cafe’s downtown. (:

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