photograph by Bekawoof

The Importance of People-Watching

Savala Nolan
Human Parts
Published in
4 min readSep 30, 2023

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A man sat at a cafe drinking a cup of coffee. He might have been reading the newspaper. He might have been painting, using a brush to dab water onto cakes of color. He might have been writing in a journal. I like that third one. Let’s go with that.

A man sat at a cafe drinking a cup of coffee and writing in his journal. He might have been scribbling angrily, brows furrowed, ignoring his coffee as it went cold. He might have been writing thoughtfully, a far-off expression on his face as he gazed out the window. He might have been writing matter-of-factly, slightly distracted, something like a Target list: tape, toothpaste, Tylenol.

A man sat at a cafe, drinking a cup of coffee and jotting to-dos in a journal. He was in his twenties, I’d say, dark overalls on his wiry frame, a cigarette tucked (pretentiously?) behind his ear. He was old, had to be more than seventy, his head tipped forward as the pen shook across the page, like how granddad’s used to. He must have been, what, fifty? Receding hair above a handsomely weathered face, the jacket of his cheap suit slung across the opposite chair, the lining threadbare.

A man sat at a cafe, drinking coffee and writing. He was twenty-five or so and smelling of cigarette smoke. He was Black. He was white. He had tan skin and spoke Spanish, or he read it, at least — a copy of El Mundo was folded next to the cream and sugar, the same paper you read when you studied abroad.

My point here is that looking at people matters, because there is a lot to see. There is a lot to know. When you look at someone, you see all kinds of details that mean something, if only because they are different from another person’s details. When we look at people — see them — our senses fire. We imagine who they are. We imagine where they come from and where they’re going. We’re right, or we’re wrong. We learn something about our prejudices, our prejudgements, our associations. We remember. We wish. We place ourselves, almost by instinct, in relation to them. We are cut from the same cloth, or so different it’s not even funny. We are charmed, or curious, or we roll our eyes. Our pulses pick up with attraction, or fear. We take in crucial information. We respond. There is a human interaction in seeing even if we never make eye contact or exchange a single gesture or word.

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Savala Nolan
Human Parts

uc berkeley law professor and essayist @ vogue, time, harper’s, NYT, NPR, and more | Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins | she/her | IG @notquitebeyonce