Investigating the cultural phenomena of people-watching at Vassar

I have always been a curious person. As someone who wants to learn about everything that is happening around me, I realized at a young age that the best way to learn is by watching others. Thus commenced a lifelong habit and love of people-watching. I always thought that it was a bit of an unhealthy habit. Some may say it’s borderline stalking—depends on how you look at it and who you talk to. But then I got to Vassar. Though it often goes unsaid, Vassar has a fascinating culture of people-watching. 

Vassar’s small campus, complete with large windows everywhere, fosters a people-watching culture that you don’t get in the “real world.” People you know are always around, and Vassar makes it easy to pull up a chair and observe them. Plus, in my unbiased opinion, Vassar students tend to be very interesting, making them fantastic subjects to observe. 

For a while, I thought this habit of people-watching was a weird thing my roommate and I would do. Living on the Noyes-Circle side of Noyes House, we both have our own massive bay windows. Naturally, we love to sit in them and watch the traffic in between class times, occasionally even calling down to our friends. We would say, “Hey, look. It’s so and so!” and then continue our homework or whatever task we were working on. Occasionally, if it was a close enough friend, we might even snap a picture of them. This, we thought, was approaching slight stalker behavior, so we tried to avoid it, or at least avoid telling people about it. 

Until, as I was walking to French class one day, my friend Julia Weinberg ’26 [Disclaimer: Weinberg is Assistant Copy Editor for The Miscellany News], who lives in Lathrop, snapped my picture and sent it to me. She was in COVID isolation, sitting and staring out the window at non-quarantine life. I was thrilled to learn that my roommate and I were not the only people-watchers of Vassar. I started asking around about this cultural phenomenon and learned that it is actually quite common around campus. 

Allison Lowe ’26 [Disclaimer: Lowe is on Copy Staff for The Miscellany News] shared my interest in people-watching. “Yeah, I like to people-watch to see what my friends are doing around campus.” As a resident of Jewett, she does not have the same easy access to a constant flow of people walking through the Nircle (Noyes Circle) like I do. Lowe said, “My favorite places to people-watch are the Quad and the one table in the Library that’s upstairs next to the Reading Room. It’s in front of this huge window where you can see people walking on the Library Lawn and the Quad.” Lowe took the stance of it being morally okay to watch people you are friends with, but she tries to avoid watching people she doesn’t know. 

Sadie Keesbury ’26 [Disclaimer: Keesbury is Crossword Editor for The Miscellany News] felt that the playing ground for people-watching spanned greater distances. “I love people-watching from my Noyes window and I love people-watching from the Deece. When it’s in the Deece, it’s more like eavesdropping.” 

Though Keesbury enjoys people-watching her friends, she prefers people-watching strangers. She explained, “But the strangers I have invented narratives for in my mind. I have favorite strangers.” When watching strangers, it becomes a game for Keesbury where she can invent backstories for the people she is watching. 

Weinberg agreed: “I love creating stories based on the little parts of people’s lives that I get to see. Also, people-watching gives you fragments from a wide variety of lives. By assembling those little pieces, you can construct a more comprehensive map of humanity.” People-watching sparks a creative part of people’s minds and gives them space in their everyday lives to use their imaginations for mundane parts of their day. It also gives a greater understanding of the people around you. 

Matt O’Leary ’26 also indulges in people-watching from time to time. When asked about his people-watching habits, he said, “I love people-watching. Especially in the morning. That’s when the kids start waking up, so out of the window, I make whatever sound effect comes to mind to mess with them.” The act of people-watching seemed like a regular part of O’Leary’s daily routine. However, for him it was more about watching strangers and messing with them than checking in on what his friends are up to. It becomes entertainment for the watcher as well as a learning experience. 

Keesbury echoed this interest in messing with strangers. “When I see people whose names I know but don’t know me, I like to sit in my window and shout their names just loud enough so they hear it but not loud enough so they know where it’s coming from.” 

Though this is a lot of fun for the people-watcher, one could question the morality of people-watching. Is it an invasion of people’s privacy? Weinberg shared, “As a naturally privacy-oriented person, I’m really careful to be aware of respecting people’s boundaries. I’m very quick to look away! Everyone people-watches to some extent, and it can be more or less judgemental given your mindset.” Though people-watching can be fun, it is important to respect people’s boundaries and privacy, and keep an open mind. You don’t want to fall back on assumptions based on just one people-watching experience. 

Keesbury also acknowledged the importance of not crossing personal boundaries. However, she had strong feelings on the morality of people-watching. “People-watching is super moral. You are people-watching in public places. If you are people-watching through the windows in people’s rooms, then that is super weird, or if you are people-watching in the bathroom. Don’t people-watch in the bathroom or other private spaces.” She stated, “If you don’t want to get people-watched in public, don’t people in public.” A solid point made by Keesbury. If you are doing something interesting in a public space, it is a natural human response to watch and want to learn more. So, it is understandable that on a small campus like Vassar where a lot of people know each other, or at least recognize each other, you might get watched.

Though it is important that you are not invading people’s personal privacy, it is totally okay to indulge in some good old-fashioned spying or whatever you want to call it. It’s free entertainment provided to you by the interesting students of Vassar, so why not take advantage of it? As Keesbury said, “If you haven’t tried it, you should really try people-watching.” Just don’t people-watch in the bathroom. 

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