An old New York Times article provided inspiration for this post.
I frequently people-watch. Maybe it's a past-time born out of an occupational need to be observant (I'm a research engineer who sometimes designs and runs ethnographic studies), but sometimes I can't help but notice things about people.
Most of the time, it actually takes a real conscious effort for me to direct attention outwards to people-watch. This isn't exactly a surprise; my MBTI type is INTJ, so extraverted sensing happens to be my inferior function (if the MBTI is to be believed at all; yeah, I'm skeptical of anything that so neatly categorizes people).
But when the time and setting are conducive, I settle naturally into a people-watching mood. This often happens during an occasion of enforced waiting, that is, when I am required to wait and have nothing better to do than to people-watch.
This can happen when I'm meeting an as-yet-to-arrive friend at a restaurant, on a bus or subway, waiting for a speaker at a lecture to begin, or waiting in line to purchase something at a mall.
I sometimes, but not often, people-watch at bus-stops or train stations as well. At those places, I usually calculate the Merc Index instead.
What do I do when I people-watch?
Well, at the lowest level, I observe how they dress, what they're doing, and why they're at that particular place where I'm watching them.
I'm no fashionista, but when I'm people-watching, I'm the rare guy who actually notices when someone matches her belt with her shoes, or decides to pair a bag with her dress. Ditto that for the pendant whose stone is the same exact hue as the nail polish that the girl is wearing.
My observations are not limited to girls, in case you're wondering. I notice the too-short hemlines on the pants that some men wear (if the ankles can be seen, it's way too short). I mentally sniff with derision at the puffed collars of preppy types. I discern which wrist the watch is worn on, and how that correlates with the parting of the wearer's hair (those are usually good indicators of handedness). I also listen for the tell-tale "ding" when someone grasps hold of a metal grab-bar while steadying themselves on a bus or train. That "ding" tells me if they're wearing a ring, which of course is an indicator of marital status.
I'm also discreet at people-watching. The audio cue above from the "ring ding" is a discreet method. Wearing shades to obscure one's focus of gaze is another, and it is the preferred method of some people, but to me, that's too obvious. And it also doesn't work for me as I'm practically blind without my prescription glasses.
So I resort to other tricks. Reflections are easy enough; bus and subway windows, shop windows, even the mirrored surface of a table or chair backing. Other methods are the left-to-right movie-panning glance (best paired with a simultaneous lift of the right hand to the chin to simulate a contemplative pose), fixing a point of focus slightly to the side and beyond your real object of interest, or if you're with company (like in a restaurant), pretending a look where you look like you're feigning interest in the conversation but are actually looking around for an excuse to leave (not easy to pull off, and don't do this if the person you're with is actually talking directly to you). The last method gives perfect license to look around the strangers in the restaurant, even with eye contact, but you must take care not to offend the people actually sitting with you at the table.
People-watching doesn't stop there of course. The fun part is in imagining what kinds of lives people you're watching lead. I allow my imagination to run wild when I observe people and think about what they do: the "student playing hooky at the shopping mall", the "desperate housewife out for retail therapy", or the "lawyer getting a little on the side with his secretary at the Fullerton during lunchtime".
Heh, they're not all G-rated of course. That would be so restrictive when I'm inventing stories for my own amusement. And of course, it just gets more interesting the more layers I add on to the stories. As is said, variety is the spice of life.