By: millie.rooney | October 09, 2015

Sometimes the only thing that gets me out of bed and into work is the thought of the interesting characters that I may come across during the day. For me, an important aspect of connection is about taking the time to see and to appreciate people in all their individual and quirky glory. I’d like to make a space on this blog for some of these characters. To begin with, I give you David*.

The comments that I find in the margins of surveys, as I sit in my overheated office in a whirl of multi-project-partner administration, are often the highlight of my day. These comments can be read as small acts of defiance by participants, requiring that we respect them as individuals rather than ticked boxes and age statistics. I’ve had people write that they can’t possibly reduce the temperature on their hot water systems because unless the water is hot enough you don’t get a proper wash and really, “Who wants to go and see the doctor whilst wearing grey knickers!”

At other times people seem frustrated or confused, resentful of the questions and the way we’re delving into their lives. People participate in this study for a variety of reasons – to claim the free grocery vouchers, to ensure some human contact, to help us out and be part of something bigger than themselves, or to learn about energy efficiency. Reasons for participation are as diverse as the people themselves.

Many participants are nervous of authority or socially awkward or suffer from mental health issues and because of this interactions can sometimes be quite exhausting. 

Thus it was with some trepidation that I picked up the phone in response to a “please call me!” written on the bottom of a survey. I put off the call for days but finally found the energy to risk the ring…

A quivering Scottish accent answered the phone and I found myself gently swept along in the burbling conversation of David Graham.

David had been dissatisfied with our survey. He was concerned that some of our questions were leading and that we hadn’t provided space for the detail about his life that we required to fully understand his story. In particular he wanted to point out that just because he was on an aged pension didn’t mean that he struggled to make ends meet.

“It’s just good housekeeping” he explained.

David thought it might help me if I knew how he so effectively lived on the pension – so well in fact that he could afford an annual holiday. While knowing this level of detail about David’s housekeeping isn’t relevant for the purposes of our research, I really do believe in listening to people who have stories to tell. That is a part of the give and take of research. That is a part of the give and take of being human.

“I’ll explain my diet” began David. 

“I never skimp on hot drinks. I love my cup of tea – I don’t take sugar, oh no, but I do use a bit of honey as a sweetener. Then I make porridge, just with water, in the microwave – it’s very efficient. I stir in a spoon of yo-ghurt [yoghurt is such an excellent sounding word with a Scottish accent], to sweeten it and give some flavour. If I’m still hungry I’ll have some toast or Wheatbix”

Having explained that he also made sure he generally had fruit on hand David returned to his morning routine.


“Oh, and I bought a soup mug from the markets. One of those expensive ones that are insulated. I don’t use it for soup but I should write and tell them of its other uses. I use it for my cocoa!”

By now it was clear that the detail of David’s life was not at all relevant to the hard-nosed ‘data’ we’re collecting for this particular research project. And it was also crystal clear that there was no way I was going to hang up the phone anytime soon on this gem of human existence.

“For lunch” he continued, “I usually eat soup. I cook it in the slow cooker and then freeze it in batches, it’s cheap”.

“On Wednesdays I have something different. My friend comes to tea and we have a roast chicken or small roast lamb. That lasts me another two nights if I put it into plastic containers. But I always make the rice fresh. Each time. I put 75g of rice into the rice cooker with 200g of water for 8 minutes.”

I love the detailed precision of David's explanation.

Image from etsy

David was also proud that he lives frugally enough to go on an annual holiday. He asked me about my travels and I told him I either go camping or to Canberra to visit my family.

“Ohhh I loov camping!” he said, “We used to go on marvellous camping trips with my boys”

David told me he was too old now to holiday in Europe but was planning on going to Western Australia with his friend. “All you need is a comfortable bed and a good shower”. He’d bought his World Wide Hostel membership and was ready to go.

It was such a pleasure talking to David. Just before we hung up he said “I hope I’m not wasting your time, but I do love chatting”.

This time there was no sadness for me to eat, but I was there and I did listen.

No David, you did not waste my time, you made my day.

*Names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect privacy.

Category: Community characters 

Tags: research, people 



Posted on : October 11, 2015

A lot of life's about gathering stories from other people that all
go into the 'story compost heap' of one's own life and
enrich our own development. That's how ideas and attitudes grow.
It's great when your work puts you in the way of such interesting
people - but you've still gotta be able to recognise them and listen
as you do so well! Thanks for sharing - looking forward to more.


Posted on : October 09, 2015

Charming. It's what I love too about my clients when they tell me
all the irrelevant details about their pet's life that have
absolutely no bearing on whether I should be vaccinating (or
hospitalising or operating on) them today. When inquiring about an
arthritic dog's mobility, I'm all ears if you want to tell me
the route of your walk, what time you go and which other canine friends
you meet on your parambulations... Squeezing it all jnto a 15min time
frame might be a bit ambitious though...

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