Sunday, 9 February 2014

Hidden lives

We all know about Too Much Infor-mation. But what about Too Little Infor-mation? What about all those everyday things we'd love to ask people about but it's impossible to do so?

I'll see a woman in the street and I'll think, Does she have a boyfriend or a husband? Are they happy together? Are they unhappy? What do they love about each other? What do they dislike? Is she well-off? Is she broke? What's her favourite activity? What does she totally hate doing? What are her obsessions? What are her phobias?

I shall never know because I can't ask. She's a closed book, an enigma, just another person on the street I'll probably never even see again. The perpetual pang of unrequited curiosity.

Sometimes I feel other people are asking similar questions about me. They stare at me quizzically, appraisingly, as if there's something they're dying to know. I wonder what's going through their mind. But just as I can't question them, they can't question me.

Even when I'm alone with someone, they seldom tell me very much about themselves. Either they prefer to keep things private or they don't think I'm trustworthy or sympathetic enough. Unlike some people, who find that everywhere they go, they attract astonishingly intimate and heartfelt confessions. So much so, they start to think it might be less of a burden if they looked a bit more off-putting.

As it is, most of my information about other people comes from the media. I eagerly devour the agony columns, the gossipy interviews, the heartbreaking stories about refugees, flood victims, premature deaths. It's odd that I know more about all these complete strangers than I do about the next-door neighbour or the greengrocer. Or the sad, defeated-looking woman who just got off the bus.

PS: There's another explanation for people not confiding in me. They think I look over-sensitive and possibly easily upset by whatever harrowing story they might tell me. So they keep quiet.

35 comments:

Ursula said...

This is hard hitting, Nick, and no apologies:

You are too curious for your good. When people want to tell something they will do so. If they don't they won't. It's not YOUR right to know anything about anyone. You mention 'gossip'. That is what you are to me: A gossip. What possible interest can the life of a woman (what of men?) passing by be to you unless you sit in a Parisian Cafe watching the world go by in hope of writing your next novel?

I once said to you, and it didn't go down well, that if I entered a crowded place I'd pick you out in a moment. Never ever having set an eye on you before. And I would. I shan't describe you in the public eye of your blog. I know taste before it leaves me.

Nick, I know nothing but nothing about you other than via the subjects you choose to write about and your inconsistent answers to comments coming in. Truth is, and it's harsh: You don't give away so much as a dime about yourself. Which is fine. Just stop, please, whingeing about other people not peeling themselves like an onion in front of you.

U

susie said...

I think women tend to tell each other personal "stuff." I tend to be on the receiving end since I don't talk much. I also used to interview people for a living, so I ask too many questions and don't talk about myself.

Most men talk more about sports and non-personal issues, in my opinion.

Today I'm blogging in a coffee shop for the first time, and I've heard more than I need to from a variety of people. It's very hard to concentrate. Maybe you should try it to get some scoop.

Secret Agent Woman said...

Isn't the sad, defeated woman on the bus allowed to have privacy? I don't feel like I owe anyone any explanation about my personal life or how I'm feeling. If I want to reveal it I will, but not just because I'm asked and surely not because anyone else has the right to that information.

I'm a fairly open person and even extremely open with close friends. But I don't have any interest in the personal lives of celebrities so a gossip column would pull a minute of my time.

Nick said...

Wow! It's always strange when other people read something into my posts that I never intended! And even on re-reading the post, I don't see where that interpretation comes from! But maybe I'm not self-aware enough to see some unconscious message that others are picking up....

Nick said...

Ursula: You're certainly reading things into my post that aren't there at all! I never ever intended to sound threatening. Of course it's not my RIGHT to know things about other people, any more than it's their right to know things about me.

I've never ever been a gossip either. Whatever is confided in me stays strictly private and I never pass it on. I know some very intimate secrets about other people but nobody else will ever know them.

And if you think I never reveal anything about myself, you've clearly not read my 764 posts very attentively. I don't know what more I could say about my umpteen neuroses, obsessions, phobias and assorted failings.

Neither am I whingeing about other people not peeling themselves in front of me. Why should they? What business is it of mine? I'm just saying that my perennial curiosity about people is seldom satisfied, that's all.

Good grief, that's a long response! Well, you did hugely misunderstand me....

Nick said...

Susie: I don't like to generalise about men and women, but certainly my own experience is that yes, women talk about the personal stuff and men don't. My occasional attempts to have a seriously personal chat with another guy have been dismal failures.

Grannymar said...

I had a relation who would wonder aloud what a passer-by did in life, then build up a whole profile of the life she thought they might lead. It was all based on the passing glimpse, the way they moved and the clothes they wore and if they looked happy or sad.

Nick said...

Agent: Again, I never intended to sound threatening and I'm sorry if it came over like that. Of course the woman on the bus is entitled to her privacy. Why should she tell me anything about her life? I'm just saying that I'm intrigued by other people's lives but seldom get a chance to explore them.

Of course you don't owe anyone any explanation of your personal life. Why should anyone expect it?

Goodness, I'm really on the defensive here, aren't I? But I do think I've been rather misinterpreted. Maybe I haven't expressed myself very well. Not for the first time....

Nick said...

Grannymar: That's a very common exercise, I think. But funnily enough, I don't do that at all. If I have no idea of someone's personal life, I never bother to speculate.

Jenny Woolf said...

Do you find though that sometimes people just can't stop telling you their life histories and you don't even know them? I don't think I've got a sympathetic face but people do this with me!

Helen Devries said...

In the newspapers, on TV, in blogging and in real life we are only told what someone else wants us to know.

I too am curious about people...I travel by bus quite frequently and wonder where people work, what do they do....but, as you say, one cannot ask.

I do often have conversations with the person next to me though and learn a lot about the culture of the place I've come to live in that way.

Bijoux said...

I must not be a curious person!

Cheerful Monk said...

I'm curious about how different people experience the world, so I read a lot of biographies.

Nick said...

Jenny: I only experience that very occasionally. Polite reserve is more usual. No, I wouldn't say your face especially invites confidences (and that doesn't mean you look frosty!).

Bijoux: Really? I can't imagine what that's like! I've always been intensely curious about all sorts of things.

Jean: Biographies and autobiographies are often fascinating insights into people's lives. I recently read Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. A most enjoyable read.

Nick said...

Helen: Those accidental conversations on the bus or train can be very interesting. That is, if they move beyond the weather and unreliable public transport.

Rummuser said...

"What you think about yourself is much more important than what others think of you."

~ Marcus Annaeus Seneca

Nick said...

Ramana: I think you missed the point. I'm not interested in what others think of me so much as how they live their lives and what makes them tick.

Liz Hinds said...

I'm like you, nick: people don't naturally open up to me. I'm helping on this restorative justice course in prison and some of the facilitators seem to have found out all sorts about their group members and I don't know if it's because they ask and I don't or whether I have the wrong sort of face.

david carrol said...

Hi, Nick. Weird qustion-do you still have that fantastic beard?!

Jay at The Depp Effect said...

I know what you mean. We are all so closed into our own little worlds, and the dreaded Political Correctness means that we dare not say anything to someone we don't know well for fear of offending. It's a sad state of affairs.

On the other hand, I confess to being quite a secretive person who doesn't like strangers knowing that much about me. Friends, yes, but not strangers, or even colleagues.

Nick said...

Liz: It's mysterious, isn't it? Some faces just seem to invite intimate confessions while others invite instant reticence.

David: Eh, where did I mention beards? As it happens, I had a very luxuriant beard for about a year in my early twenties, but I've never had one since.

Nick said...

Jay: People take offence so easily nowadays, don't you think? It must be hard work being so endlessly offended.

I'm pretty secretive at work because employers can take exception to all sorts of odd personal quirks. But apart from that I'm willing to reveal just about anything.

Unknown said...

I didn't say anything about you being threatening. I was just saying that it's not our place to know about what's going on with strangers if they feel like being private. A person's right to privacy far outweighs anyone's wish to know their business.

Wisewebwoman said...

Wow Nick, you have generated a veritable maelstrom in the commentariat.

An old chap confided his whole life to me this morning. It took 2 hours. He called me and I drove there and he made me tea. He's 90 but saws his own wood and ploughs his own driveway.

This happens constantly. I have that face. I mentioned this before.

If you truly want to know about others' lives it would show on you. I think. I don't think you can "develop" it.

I could be wrong.

I am insatiably curious. But then I write. I write a lot.

I feel justified.

XO
WWW

Nick said...

Unknown? "A person's right to privacy far outweighs anyone's wish to know their business." I couldn't agree more. Whether people want to tell me things is entirely up to them. I never suggested compulsory disclosure!

www: Yes, you've mentioned quite a few times that you have the sort of face that invites full and frank confessions! Maybe as you say people get a sense of whether you truly want to know about them or not.

Secret Agent Woman said...

That was me. And you didn't say you thought it should be compulsory, but your post really does read as if you think people ought to be more forthcoming or agreeable to being intruded upon. That may not be what you were trying to convey, but it sounds like it. And I just disagree with that. I think it's a kindness to just leave people to their own private hurts unless they are making it clear they want to talk. (And incidentally, people spill to me all the time, and did long before I became a shrink. That's fine. But I would never ask or even wish I could ask.)

Nick said...

Agent: Okay, I accept there was a slightly censorious tone, even if I was unaware of it. I suppose the phrase Too Little Information doesn't help, as it conjures up the genuinely censorious tone of Too Much Information. And I suppose the line "they seldom tell me very much about themselves" sort of suggests they SHOULD be telling me things.

That's what I like about blogging, the unexpected comments that make me think again about what I've written.

Ursula said...

Your last comment to Secret Agent (secret!) is gracious.

What makes me smile, and maybe Secret Agent too considering calling herself 'a shrink': The year (five years ago) my sister qualified not so much as a shrink as a counselor she delighted in giving away one personal information about me. So much for "privacy". The fallout has reverberated across two families. Cost me three years in daily tears, affected my son to see his normally happy mother devastated, trust betrayed, relationships of a lifetime torn apart. Before you ask: What I told her was neither earth shattering nor immoral. The only tragedy that she couldn't keep her mouth shut. For an hour in her life she was interesting. Because she had learnt something about me, the person who is private and knows how to keep her mouth shut. Which, incidentally, and Secret Agent, and I dare say WWW too, may relate to, is why so many people confide in me. BECAUSE it won't go any further. I will take so much to my grave I'll probably need a double 'room'.

Anyway, enough of me. On a personal note, Nick: I do hope that apart from you imparting your views on the world to your readership you do take away something from the comments given in return. No one is after your skin. Where there is a shout there will be echo. Or so I hope.

U

Nick said...

Ursula: It's unfortunate that just one not-very-dramatic fact caused such family upset. Surprising that a counsellor didn't think twice about revealing something private.

I'm good at keeping people's secrets to myself as well, though it seems they're nothing like as extensive as the ones you're holding onto!

As I said to Agent, I do indeed take something away from the comments. I read them avidly as they often give me all sorts of illuminating insights.

david carrol said...

Hi,Nick.sorry I saw an ancient post with a pic of a man with a real handle-bar beard from May 2010 and assumed it was you-apologies. Anyway, hope you long continue blogging about broad-minded topics!

Nick said...

David: Ah yes, I remember the pic. But it wasn't me, just one of the odd images I plunder from the internet! I went off beards completely after that one bearded phase. Now they just make me laugh.

david carrol said...

Hi. so how do you come up with new topics on your blogs? anything exciting coming up?

kylie said...

nick, when people are tempted to reveal themselves they put out little testers and the response is what determines the extent of the revelation. you dont see the testers and therefore respond in a way that prevents further disclosure

Nick said...

Kylie: On the contrary, I'm very alert to "testers" as I'm always dying to know more about people. If there's the slightest hint of a personal confidence, I'm all ears and I try to tease out a bit more if they seem to want to open up.

You're determined to explain me to myself but you so often get me wrong. You annoy me and hurt me intensely. Perhaps you should get off your high horse occasionally.

kylie said...

i wasnt intending to be on my high horse