The Art of Empathetic People-Watching

by Ross Pirsig

Why do we people-watch?

Let’s be honest, we all love people-watching. Actually, we do it every day.

Checking Instagram, Facebook, streaming a movie on Netflix, or even reading a book are some indirect ways we people-watch on a daily basis.

Living in a city forces one to constantly people-watch. On your way to meet a friend for coffee, you spot an old woman carrying a heavy bag of groceries, slowly shuffling along, determined to deliver the goods home, and you admire her perseverance, determination and independence. You see a young couple sharing a red Bordeaux at the Italian restaurant that you always pass by but have never gone in, and you make a note to do so the moment you see the smiling waiter bring out the steamy pesto and pasta.

The Art of Empathetic People-Watching

People buzz by you on their cell phones, listening to music, waiting for the bus, getting in a taxi, and so much more. It’s fascinating to imagine where they come from and where they’re going…and why.

The birth of a flâneur

In 19th century French literature, the idea of the flâneur was born. Essentially the word originated from men who instead of working, simply wandered around the streets of Paris people-watching.

Google’s definition of flâneur is “someone who saunters around and observes society.” I love how “saunter” is a part of it. The implication is that one has no plans – the flâneur simply goes with the flow and watches people who he or she spontaneously comes into contact with.

19th Century French Poet Charles Baudelaire defined the flâneur as follows:

To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.

The Art of Empathetic People-Watching

The meeting of flâneurs

A little over a year ago, I started traveling around Europe with this exact philosophy. I wandered around Spain, Italy, France, and Morocco watching people, while also spending time with them and listening to them. I created a YouTube channel to document my travels, and I named it Ross the Flâneur. The funny thing is, sometimes while people-watching one can also be people-watched! One time in northern Morocco, we were having lunch at an American-style diner and we heard “Hello! Welcome.” A few Moroccan college students were observing us from the other booth, and came over to chat with us. They sincerely welcomed us to their country and we exchanged contact information. Later that week they invited my partner Rocio and I to a beautiful overlook of the entire city, and we had Moroccan tea while chatting about life. It was one of the most fun experiences I had.

The Art of Empathetic People-Watching

There have been countless amazing experiences like this throughout my travels. I confess that I’m also interested in listening to what people have to say, more than just watching them, so many of my videos include interviews with people from all around the world.

We are all one

You see, it’s one thing to watch people from your hometown, but another to watch people from different cultures. This for me is a much richer experience. I learn so much about myself and others throughout my travels, and it is broadening my sense of what it means to be a person.

The Art of Empathetic People-Watching

In conclusion, being a flâneur (for me) is not simply about people-watching in a cold or detached way, it’s about watching them with empathy, and love, and with an open mind. It’s about being conscious of the beauty in others around us and cherishing how they are similar and different from us.

Thank you for entering into my world for these few brief moments. I encourage you to people-watch more consciously, and hopefully by doing so you can begin to see as I have that we are in this world together, and are simply different expressions of one human race, on this planet we call Earth. People aren’t people without other people. We are all one.

The Art of Empathetic People-Watching

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Ross the flâneur

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