Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Learning to Observe Again

As I'm feeling my way to a new project I'm calling Immersed in Suburbia, I'm getting back in the practice of doing observations. This morning I hit up a Target near my suburban home, and decided to sit in the Starbucks "cafe" after finishing up my shopping.

I decided not to use a notebook, figuring I'd just type notes on my phone. Plus it's 2017 and who sits around with a little notebook?

So I sat at the "cafe" for an hour sipping coffee. I have "cafe" in quotes because I'm not sure what to call the Starbucks space that is adjacent to the check out lines where they have 5-6 tables. It's not an inviting space to stay. I didn't see anyone here doing work or conducting business as they might in an actual coffee shop. Most people grab and go.

This was a boring space to observe. But in a way, it was the perfect place to observe and watch the wheels of capitalism go round and round. From my vantage point I watched people come through the line and either make their way to the Starbucks counter or to the exit. I quickly remembered that in doing observations one must get comfortable with the waiting. It's okay when "nothing" happens. This is something I recall Peter Moskos writing about for a chapter in the book New Directions in Sociology. He's got a chapter entitled "In Defense of Doing Nothing: The Methodological Utility of Introversion".

So I sat, observed, typed notes in my phone, texted my wife (because that feels normal), and waited.

I got myself to pay attention to sounds. If there had been music playing, I would have noticed. Without music I listened for small talk and any other kind of sound. The main sound I heard was that of babies crying. In my phone I typed:
SOUNDS : babies r a crying

That's a section I'll have in my field notes. SOUNDS.

In my phone I typed:
I would say the crying is unbearable but I know from first hand experience it's bearable

There were several babies crying and the crying was loud and I know from my experience not so long ago that it's often a feeling of embarrassment when your baby is crying. Whenever my kids were babies and in crying mode I remember feeling self-conscious as a parent like the world is looking at you judging you "Hey parent can't you get your kid to stop crying and why are you out in public anyway?" I still try to give a half smile or an acknowledging nod to a parent with a crying child but I don't think it usually gets interpreted as parental solidarity. I think it's more like "Hey old guy why are you nodding at me you're weird".

The other sound I heard a lot was the phrase "Merry Christmas". The Starbucks workers were exchanging the phrase with customers. It was pleasant.

What I didn't see (because I try to be mindful of what I'm not seeing or hearing) is people freaking out or being angry. It remains my contention that people are generally terrible and I'd fully expect people's terribleness to come out so close to Christmas with the last minute consumption pressure so strong but in this rare case people were behaving in a congenial way. Let me say I spend a lot of time in Target and on many occasions I've seen people scream at workers and be awful. Here's one such case I wrote up. During my brief observation today, however, people were gentle.

My main observation today is in the form of a question for the Starbucks crowd: Is Starbucks a gendered experience? The whole time I sat in the "cafe" today, it was only women buying coffee and gift cards. I was only there for one hour -- obviously I can't make much out of an hour -- this is why I am asking. At one moment there were 6 women waiting in line. The line kept changing and it was one woman after another. One waited with her baby in a baby carrier. She swayed back and forth and I didn't hear the baby make a sound. Chilling with a baby in a carrier is a skill I never mastered when my kids were little. Anyhow, is there such a thing as a "typical" Starbucks? In a regular Starbucks (one not affixed to Target), are there any gender patterns to observe?

Here's one more thing I typed in my phone:
I wonder how long I can sit here b4 someone says something to me. I'm the type of person that strangers approach

And that's so true. People talk to me all the time in public. ALL THE TIME. Except for this time, lol. No one spoke to me during my hour of observation at the suburban Target-Starbucks (Tarbucks? Starget?) near my home.

The end.

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