Monday Motivation: Watching the world whirl by

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Benyon's blog

snipI’m sure I share at least one idiosyncrasy with many millions of my fellow human beings: I love to watch people. I could quite happily spend an entire morning on a sidewalk café simply eyeing my fellow coffee-drinkers and the stream of humanity passing by.

What do I look for? All sorts of things. I enjoy, for instance, recognizing “types”:  the corseted blonde in an outfit one size too small for her; the muscle-beach guy with the over-developed biceps and triceps, and the rather wooden way in which he saunters along; the hyper-lean cyclist with his hollow cheeks and the prominent bulge in his cycling shorts.

I remember the simple system reported by Ed McBain’s character, Matthew Hope. People look, he said, like foxes – narrow faces – or pigs – round faces. I look for the foxes. I look for the pigs. (Note, pigs are just as likely to be attractive as foxes.)

I look for familiar facial architecture. There are “standard models”, I’ve come to recognize, and I enjoy spotting these amongst the crowds.

I try to guess the ages of people – although I never ask them, so I never know whether my guesses are accurate. But it’s an interesting exercise, because you have to look past the make up and sometimes the cosmetic surgery to get at the truth.

I try to guess their occupations.

But most of all – like all people watchers – I try to read their body language, to interpret their “shows”. The negligent, perhaps Gallic, shrug of the shoulders betokening disdain. The hesitant smile registering insecurity. The fiddling with the change in their pockets which suggests, perhaps, impatience or boredom. Their sighs. The way they walk. The way they talk to each other – yearningly, confidently, lovingly, earnestly, domineeringly, diffidently. The way they use their hands. The gestures they make. The control they exert over their hands. Their silences…

This is what we’ve evolved to notice. It’s probably coded into our genes, a survival mechanism that helps the more observant among us read more accurately the intricate social hierarchies that shield us from the worst the world can throw at us, or that enable us to climb the various ladders of our ambition.

My point is, we love doing this stuff. Or at least, I assume that you enjoy doing this as much, maybe even more, than I do.

And it’s because we enjoy doing it that we hate other people doing it for us. Especially in books. We much prefer being given the evidence – that tic in the cheek, that yearning in the eyes, that repeated, obsessive fiddling with the knives and forks – and framing our own hypotheses.

Philip Hensher, author of nine novels and a number of collections of short stories, said it wonderfully, in an interview on writing published in The Guardian:

“Think about how people reveal themselves through behaviour, and focus on the externals of gesture, expression, dialogue and settings. It’s tempting, given the limitless power of the omniscient novelist, to plunge into a character’s head and write, baldly, ‘Laura felt painfully envious’. But what has more energy is the analysis of how a character in the grip of painful envy carries herself, speaks, looks, and even dresses. We always know, if we are observant, how a person who is desperately, secretly in love with another behaves. The trick of fiction is to extract the ways in which other emotions affect the outer crust, too, and by observing the characteristic walk of a human being overcome with happiness, say, making the reader feel observant, and not just laboriously informed.”

What does a woman do when she feels a little nervous of her partner? What does a child do when he anticipates punishment? What do you do when you’re depressed?

Then tell us, not that she harbours a little fear of her partner, or that that child worries about the upcoming interview with the headmaster, or that you’re depressed. Show how, unconsciously, we signal these emotions to the watching world.

To me, sitting unobtrusively at a table in the shadows, sipping my cappuccino and making the odd note.

Happy writing,

Richard

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