On People-watching

For session last Sunday, as an exercise in Equality, we headed out to Nex to people-watch. Empathy being a prerequisite of true equality of dignity and personhood, the purpose of this exercise was to empathise with the people that we chose to observe. It was an ingenious and creative idea. It caught all our interest. And it did lead to a deeper understanding of Equality. But it did not do that through empathy.

To empathise, we would have to dialogue, to share, to be a part of each other’s stories. I imagine that we would go out in twos or threes and talk to random people, maybe a busker. We would ask that busker why he is busking, and what a busking life is like. We would share a bit of who we are, all the while being awkwardly and overly sensitive to how much more privileged we are compared to him. And then, perhaps, we would busk a while with him. People would stare and wonder. Maybe some people would think this is just another lame community service project. Maybe some would donate more because of our involvement. Maybe some would even stop to watch a while, and smile.

The point is: we cannot empathise through mere observation; participation is required.

What we experience from people-watching then, is not empathy, but sonder. As we study our targets and their quirks, we realise that the people around us are not simply atoms in a Seldonian psychohistory; they are protagonists of their own stories. A kind of Reverse Observer Effect thus occurs. Instead of our act of observation changing the observed, it is the observer that is changed – on two levels. First, what hitherto existed for us only as objects in our social universes become subjects of our social experiment. Second, and thereafter, we can no longer remain as scientists observing subjects; we become persons understanding other persons – not that we understand what their stories are (that requires empathy), but we understand that they have stories.


On my way to KTV with my colleagues, I watched a domestic helper and a kid opposite me interact. What would that kid grow up to be like? Where does the helper come from? Does she have her own family and kids? How long will the helper stay with this kid? How will the kid remember the helper? How will the helper remember the kid?

Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.

– Neil Gaiman, A Game of You

P.S. Here’s a snapshot of us at KTV. I never imagined that this would make it to my Work Milestone list (though now that it has, I realise its inevitability).



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About Mel

I dreamt I was a whale. https://melvynfoo.wordpress.com/about-mel/