People watching is a favourite Parisian past time. When you pass by cafés, you will notice the chairs turned out towards the street. When inside a cafe, tables can be quite close to one another. Sometimes you can’t help but eavesdrop on other conversations and watch people interacting. Using your imagination to add in the extra details can be quite entertaining. Common etiquette dictates that it is rude to stare and to listen in on others’ conversations, but it doesn’t seem to be the case in Parisian culture. I did not seem to notice being ‘observed’ the last time I was there, maybe Parisians practice subtlety in this aspect.
Around the industrial revolution, flâneurs wandered aimlessly along the newly completed boulevards and arcades whilst observing life around them. Many writers and poets of the 19th century were known flâneurs, and were likely inspired by their observations. Defined by Oxford dictionary as “a man who saunters around observing society“, this is probably how the art of people watching began. (There is quite a bit more to the concept of the flâneur in the literary and philosophical sense, it is worth looking into it further if it interests you.)
I have to admit that I don’t mind a bit of people watching myself. Once observing strangers’ body language, I then make up a story to go with them (occasionally I confirm my story when I overhear some of the conversation…). It is quite amusing, I can see why Parisians enjoy it so much.