People-watching: Human nature or stalker-ish behavior?

Despite the obvious hustle and bustle of college life, there are inevitable moments of dullness: waiting for your professor to get to class in a crowded College of Arts and Sciences hallway, standing in line at the dining hall in Warren Towers, watching your load of laundry finish its cycle in a humid South Campus basement. 

Many of us — perhaps without even noticing — spend these moments people-watching. 

In the mere seconds we share our space with another human being, our mind goes to work. Do they look happy, sad, confused or stressed? What are they wearing? How is their hair styled? What type of shoes do they have on?

person sitting in park
A person sits in a park. Eden writes about why people-watching – though potentially borderline-creepy – is best done on college campuses. COURTESY OF BROOKE CAGLE VIA UNSPLASH

When we spot someone interesting, we may even start crafting a backstory for them: Where are they going dressed like that? Are they in a relationship? Where do they work?

It may seem borderline-creepy, watching people without their knowledge, but college is the best place to do it. Here, we are surrounded by unique people from different backgrounds, all with undoubtedly different stories. 

As such, this facet of human behavior has become a hobby for college students, and now a massive trend on TikTok. There are many TikTok accounts created by students of colleges around the country, with the usernames “fake people of [college name].” These accounts are dedicated to filming random students on campus in 30 second clips, and giving the subject of the video a fake name, age and made-up scenario. 

For example, @fakepeopleofvtech has amassed more than 19 thousand likes with a video of two students walking across Virginia Tech’s campus. The caption detailing the fake scenario read: “Justin and Emma (18) met last night at a party and even went to DX together after. Emma wants to hang out more but Justin was just really dr*nk and now he’s in a pickle.” 

Even with these accounts, there’s more of a science to people-watching than one may think. 

According to a ScienceDirect article, “Regardless of accuracy, these inferences have the potential to meaningfully change the ways in which people interact with and orient themselves toward others.” Watching others so intently makes you question the way you present yourself to others. What do people think of me when I speed-walk down Commonwealth Avenue, still in pajamas, to make an 8 a.m. class that’s graded on attendance? Do people think I’m crazy when they spot me shoving four bananas and an apple into my bag before I leave the dining hall?

We may even subconsciously change the way we hold ourselves based on what we notice of others. Since I got to BU, I’ve been seriously questioning my outfit game. Leggings and a t-shirt just won’t cut it anymore, especially when I see people walking around campus in Kendall Jenner-esque streetwear. 

Upon my research of this social phenomenon, I’ve discovered a more scientific approach to people-watching. Dr. Susan Whitbourne at the University of Massachusetts Amherst details in a “Psychology Today” article that there are five meaningful areas of focus in which you can refer to make more accurate judgments when watching people. 

From clothes, you can dictate identity. The way one carries themselves can tell you a lot about their level of self-esteem. Facial expressions can help you gauge one’s emotional state. People’s interactions with others can tell you how agreeable they are. And the way they stand out in a crowd — or navigate large groups of people — can show you how extroverted a person is.

However, these strategies can prove useful outside of aimless people-watching. Say you need to catch up on some notes from the COM101 lecture you missed, and you’re trying to figure out who would be kind enough to help you. Or you spot a hottie from across BU Beach, but you can’t tell if you should go talk to them. Although you can’t and shouldn’t try to determine everything about a person from their appearance, you may still benefit from people-watching in a constructive way. 

Despite the compelling psychological nature of this concept, you might be thinking: “it’s not that deep.” Or maybe even, “This is starting to get a little creepy. I wouldn’t want people looking at me like this.” 

To that, I’d say you are probably right. 

Take a video posted from the account @fakepplofbu, which depicts a BU student walking down the street, paired with an elaborate caption. The clip has racked up over 20 thousand likes, but amongst the 83 comments, people had negative things to say. One user wrote “can you not film random ppl thx” while another questioned “why are you hating on random people just for walking.” 

Simply observing people and even making minor judgments is natural. But the fact that it has turned into a trend — documented for all of social media to see — walks the line between funny and creepy. 

Personally, if I saw a TikTok of myself walking down the street, I’d be seriously spooked. But as someone who has spent much of their life subconsciously people-watching, I’m inclined to say that it’s a natural human behavior. Until it makes it to social media, that is.

But you tell me: Would you like to know who’s watching you as you go about your day? Would you be interested to know what strangers think of you?

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