two people quietly talking at night

What lies between the said, and the unsaid?

With social media we know what people have for breakfast….where they buy their clothes… where they go to drink, eat, socialise.  

And, we know where they are right now. Because they tell us – or at least their phone does.

It seems there are people who will do anything to be on TV.  Love islandI’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of HereThe Only Way Is EssexFirst DatesMarried At First Sight.

Then there is the Kardashians. A family that lives their life  in the full glare of the media. And, because of the media they are now very famous, and very wealthy.

And who doesn’t love the super glamorous photographs of ‘celebrities’ posing on their sofa, showing off their  beautiful homes in Hello Magazine? Or, MTV cribs.

We know so much about so many people that we don’t actually know.  But that’s just how it’s edited, played up, played out.

It seems that everyone is looking for 15 minutes of fame?

And yet, ever since Anyone At Home  began in 2017, my biggest difficulty (by far) has been finding people to interview. 

It is always easier for people to say ‘No’, than to say ‘Yes’.

People will say ‘No….because they want to protect their privacy. They don’t want to be exposed…they don’t want the hassle…they are not that interested in the project….they don’t believe they have a story to tell – or share. Or, for whatever reason, they don’t want people to see/ how/where they live.

Which suggests that those who say ‘Yes’ do so because they are  interested in the project. They are perhaps more sociable and open-minded. They are comfortable in sharing a glimpse of their homes and something of themselves.

Anyone At Home  asks people to talk about their lives and their home. Whatever is going on in their lives at that time (inside and outside the home) impacts on what they say, on their mood and outlook. 

The run-up to the US elections of 2020 was a divisive time of riots, anarchy and a lot of bad blood. The country was riled and angry, in a state of panic and nervous disbelief. 

Hong Kong is also experiencing political and civil upheaval. People don’t trust the authorities and are wary about articulating ‘too much’. Worried about saying something that could be traced and used against them it is easier to say nothing.

And yet, the people I interviewed from the  US and Hong Kong were open and chatty. But, a casual aside, an off the cuff remark, a joke can easily be misconstrued. And so –  yes –  for the final published story they chose to delete some of the text.

Better to be safe, than sorry.

What people experience, and what they think, can be very different from what they are prepared to talk about – to a stranger, to the media, to the rest of the world. 

And it’s not just about politics. 

Often, if not more so, it is about guarding personal privacy.

One participant who had been through a very difficult divorce did not want her ex-husband to know anything about her life now. She went through her story very carefully to ensure that if he found it he would not be able to ‘read’ anything into it. He would not know it was about her.

What she shared was a very real and heartfelt story. It was the story that she was prepared to share.

It is natural for people to want to protect their identity and private life – and their home.

There is only so much that people are prepared to say. Yes an interviewer you have to tread lightly to encourage, but not push, someone somewhere they don’t want to be.

Tread softly, because you tread on my… life 

A few  years ago I was asked by a local housing association to get qualitative feedback on residents’ experience of their homes. The association was keen to know what people really thought  and to get useful insights. 

The information went out to all the residents. Only one person replied 

I should have guessed that would be the case.

From my experience of doing research in Hong Kong, people who live in public rented accommodation (living under imposed rules and regulations) don’t want to draw attention to themselves – just in case.  

This is their home – even if it’s not their home. So, people are never going to voluntarily come forward if there is a chance of exposing something where they may be seen to break the rules.

Why risk it?

The one person who did reply? He only wanted to gripe and complain about the housing association. He did not want to be interviewed.

People are wary of authority. And so, unless someone is happy to share that kind of information we will never know what changes they have made – and why. A standardised anonymised survey may produce a certain level of data as feedback, but it will not reveal the residents’ decision-making, thinking and experience.

You never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life. 

And that includes friends and family. 

One interviewee was very open to discuss his experience of caring for his mother.  It was his story of her – a story that would resonate very well with others in a similar situation. But, he decided not to proceed to publication.

In black and white it may have seemed too raw, too sensitive, and too personal. For him, this was not the right time.

This is real lifeNot fiction.

There are certain things that people are not comfortable to articulate about themselves, or others. So, of course there are some things that will be left unsaid…. or unshared… or retracted.. or glossed over.

It is often said that the men who returned from fighting in WWI rarely spoke about it. Perhaps they felt people at home would not understand. Or it was just too painful to revisit. And so, that part of their lives was just not talked about. It’s only years later families realise they know very little about that individual’s experience of fighting in a war – how it was for them.

The unspoken creates the unsaid. Either because we don’t want people to know, or we don’t see it for what it is. 

And that creates a vacuum in knowledge.

A visit to the doctor may be a few minutes in/ out – or conducted completely online. Appointments are on the clock and in that time a patient may have difficulty opening up about a sensitive issue to reveal their full range of symptoms. Doctors can seem to be an authority figure, busy, powerful. And so, there may be things left unsaid that may be important – or indeed critical – to that person’s health and well-being. 

We think we know everything about people because they willingly appear on TV sharing deeply personal issues  and predicaments ( Embarrassing BodiesThe Jeremy Kyle Show,  Judge Rinder). This exposure appears to normalise our ability to talk about sensitive issues – to one and all.

Is this caring and sharing….or sharing too much?

Daily routines may not be ‘good TV’ but, sometimes everyday life dramas can be a sensitive and powerful story; a story that could resonate with others.

TV brings us real-life stories:  AmbulanceOne Born Every MinuteAirlineIt turns the focus to people who are doing their jobs – often in very difficult circumstances. It shifts a perspective towards the everyday. And so, we see the unsung hero/heroine dealing with an emergency/crisis situation – rather than the usual ‘ spokesperson’ or CEO. 

The real story here is that our lives continually change. As we get older we will all have to face certain life situations, where others have gone before.

We now have a better appreciation of Black Culture, Women’s History, LBGT perspectives. It is taken a massive shift in thinking for this to happen and a very long time. It seems strange now to think that people’s lives were not recognised, not understood, not talked about and not documented. Throughout history their experiences and stories were suppressed, and overlooked.

It was as if they did not exist.

In the future what we view as the over-sharing of our daily life through social media and TV may become a valuable archive of who we are today. It could be a sense of Pompeii in digital form. Archaeologists of the future will piece together what people did, what they ate, wore, and how they lived. It will be about making sense of our lives based on the mass media – from the people who tell all.


Those who speak the loudest don’t speak for us all.

There are those who choose not to speak. 

There are those who are never asked to speak.

Some stories will never be told. And so, we have to dig deep to find, and reveal a better and wider range of stories to reflect the times in which we live.

Enough said.

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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