The Perks of “People Listening”

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m a people watcher. I find people — their mannerisms, their facial expressions, their voices — fascinating. I went to the pool today with the intention of swimming, reading my book and minding my own business. But then a woman, who I’ll call Martha, arrived. I heard her from the street as she walked toward the gate surrounding the pool. The journalist in me couldn’t help but write about her. So I did. Here’s Martha’s story:

Martha waves her hands back and forth when she talks, her flourescent pink nail polish painting the air around her. She seems fearless, walking around the pool grounds, cackling and talking loudly for the whole pool to hear.

“You’re nuts, you’re carrrazzy,” she tells her friend Anastasia in a thick Brooklyn accent. “Woahhh mamma mia. … badda bing, badda bing!” Her eyes are invisible behind the blue-green lenses of her sunglasses, but her voice reveals her soul. Sounding like Mrs. Costanza from “Seinfeld,” she talks to her friends as if an actress in a play. The pool is her stage.

She goes to the pool a few times a week, partly for pleasure, partly to combat one of her greatest fears: swimming.

At age 10, while at a theme park in New York, Martha wanted desperately to jump into the park’s 24-foot deep diving pool. Her dad advised her not to go into the water, but after he walked away and headed toward the bathroom, little independant Martha plopped into the pool.

Fear surfaced, Martha said, as she sunk deeper and deeper, unable to stay afloat. She said she remembers flailing her arms, but that fatigue soon dragged her down. The lifeguard on duty was flirting with his girlfriend and failed to see Martha. She said he was later fired for neglecting to help her.

The day that Martha almost drowned is the day that forced Martha to make a decision: Either stay out of the water or learn to step in, one foot at a time. Now, though she can’t swim, she still goes into the pool and stays afloat on a noodle. While in the pool today, she rarely ventured from the water’s edge. Maybe someday, she said, she’ll learn to swim.

Just after arriving at the pool around 4 p.m., Martha called her friend Vivian and asked her to join her and her friends. “Come on over, Vivian!” she said, her energy bubbling.

When she isn’t talking, Martha laughs. She flirted with the men around her today as she floated on her green noodle. She said her husband, whom she affectionately calls “Cookie,” doesn’t mind her flirtacious nature.

“I’m all talk and no action,” she said to her friend Juarez, who talks in broken English. “I can look at you as long as I don’t touch.”

Soon after, Vivian arrived, whizzing around the poolside on a motorized scooter. An older woman who wears lines of age on her face, Vivian looked and acted as though she could be Martha’s mother.

“Ooo, that bathing suit looks good on you, girl,” she said to a woman lying on a lounge chair. She scooted toward Martha, wanting to make sure she had found a pool noodle. There used to be six of them in the nearby shed. Now, there are only two left, Vivian said.

Martha and Vivian talked for a couple minutes, then Vivian rode away, cackling and tossing her head up high as she rolled down the walkway back toward her apartment. But just as she was out sight she came back, saying she was bored and wanted another minute of company.  Martha encouraged her to come into the pool, then told her the story of the time she almost drowned. The story didn’t seem to amuse Vivian, maybe because she had heard it a few too many times. She left soon after, disappearing down the walkway.

I stayed at the poolside for a little while longer, hoping I could wait to see Martha’s husband arrive, but a team of red fire ants invaded my beach bag, so my bug phobia and I left.

Having learned so much about Martha in a half-hour’s time, I wanted to stay and find out more. Hearing Martha talk to her friends made me realize just how important listening can be. I used to hate silence, especially during interviews. It was better to fill the silence with my own words, I used to tell myself, than to awkwardly wait for the other person to respond. But I’m learning that silence really does speak.

By listening to Martha talk and by observing her in her natural element, I learned so much about her. Part of the storytelling process is the interview — recording basic background information and getting the person you’re interviewing to feel comfortable with you. But so much of storytelling is about listening.

So, maybe a better phrase for people watching would be “people listening,” if that makes sense.

The mall is a great place to people watch/listen, as is the pool, apparently. One of my old writing coaches, Mrs. T., used to tell me that when she needed inspiration for the characters in her novels, she would go to the mall and watch people.

As I watch, I listen, and hope for a story.

When/where do you find your best stories?

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at

7 thoughts on “The Perks of “People Listening”

  1. There seem to only be a few places left where people from all social strata all converge — the airport, for instance (well — maybe not ALL social strata there, but many), and, in a big city, the train or the subway. Those are my favorite places to hang out and just watch & listen. The airport is the best, though, because it has not only the people but the DRAMA. The airport is all goodbyes and reunions, rushing and relief, projects in motion, last-minute phone calls, etc. I love it.

  2. Anytime I’m in a public place, I like to listen to what other people say and watch their behavioral actions, especially in places that have good conversation starters — i.e. Apple Stores – listening to people talk about the iPhone or the latest iPod/iMac/MacBook.

    Also, in college, there was a place called the Diag which is where the paths to most Central Campus buildings intersect. There are grassy knolls and patches and trees and oodles of people walking, talking on their cell phones, sitting, relaxing, shouting and soap-boxing. That was my favorite place to people-watch/listen and arguably was all of campus’.

  3. I agree, Robin. Airports are a great place to find story ideas. The movie “Love Actually” comes to mind. In the opening scene of the movie, people are hugging, crying, laughing, etc. at Heathrow. It’s a pretty poignant representation of human emotion.

    Bill – I hadn’t thought of going to a place like an Apple store for story ideas. That’d definitely be a good place to people watch/listen, esp. with all the convos going on.

  4. Ben Affleck talks about people watching at the airport in Dogma. This post really reminded me of that scene.

    (Unfortunately the hotel computer here only allows one window open at a time, so I can’t link – but I think you know what I’m talking about)

  5. I work in a supermarket, in the deli department. As such, I’m usually in constant contact with all sorts of people: men, women, young, old, financially stable and not so much.
    When I first started, I was very quiet. A “how can I help you?” followed by the order, and finishing it off with a “have a nice day.”
    As time passed, I began to come to a realization. The only reason they were being so candid was that they felt uncomfortable, even bored, while they were going about the arduous task of spending their money on the sustenence of them and their families. So, I began to be more outgoing and enthusiastic, asking them questions, shooting witty remarks, and just trying to make their visit a little more enjoyable and light-hearted.
    To get back on topic, I’ve learned that when I do this, I gleam a little bit more from the customers about who they are and where they come from. Their likes, dislikes, etc.
    However, I remember back when I was much more quiet. I would sit somewhere and try to do homework, for example. I say “try” because I would invariably wind up picking up bits and pieces of other people’s conversations.
    I guess what this short story is about is that I can see the benefits of both the bombastic and the passive approaches of interaction.
    A very interesting and poignant “observation” and article.

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