I have always been nosy about the way other people live. Walking home after dark, I can never resist the urge to peer into the warmly lit homes of strangers. I’m compelled toward these portals into other lives – trinkets illuminated as though on display, what art and lighting and sofa choice say about the people who inhabit different spaces.
A home open for inspection is a windfall. It puts you in the belly of the beast. Finally, a chance to inspect wallpapers up close, pore over family photos, touch things. I throw myself into these tasks with a birdwatcher’s patience and eye for minutiae. In my experience, the bougier the neighborhood, the better. It’s all well and good to see how normal people live – but I’m a normal person, I know how I live – what I really want to see is what too much money can buy. For example, a house I walked past in Shibuya, surrounded by sheep-sized Shaun The Sheep statues embossed with various national flags; or a house I inspected in Woollahra, in which every family photo was professionally taken, its subjects clad in all-white like a set of Kardashians. My favorite open home discovery was a grinning selfie, displayed by the master bed, of the woman who lived there arm in arm with 90s pop sensation Seal. When he noticed me ogling it, the real estate agent whispered in a stagy aside, ‘They’re good friends.’ How did they meet? Why keep this picture of him at her bedside? These are the questions that haunt me.
I long for the moment of graduation from work friends or gym friends or dinner friends to Friends That Go To Each Other’s Houses. On my first visit to a friend’s home, I insist on a guided tour. I want to know every artwork’s backstory, the thought process that resulted in that vase, that table, that wine rack (and the wines it holds). In multi-person, plant-filled homes, I want to know who has the green thumb. I have pored over every bookshelf I’ve ever walked past. I notice (and question) changes in decor between visits with all the gravity and attentiveness of a serial killer. When a friend moves in with a partner, I appraise the merger of lives and decorative styles, eyes peeled for collateral (Darth Vader prints relegated to storage closets; collectable action figures boxed up in a laundry corner, which a friend insists are going to Vinnies). I suspect this is all driven by fantasy. Fantasy about the lives other people lead when we aren’t watching; the fantasy of our lives coming together with others’; the fantasy of the lives we might lead, in other spaces.
Now that so many of us are working from home, the portal has really opened. Our access doesn’t end at friends and loved ones (or strangers whose homes are on the market). We’ve been invited into the inner sanctum of a whole range of people we’d ordinarily only see in public – colleagues, clients, healthcare providers, newscasters and entertainers who have started broadcasting from home. Through the lens of a Zoom call, I can see whether my colleagues are cat people or dog people. I can glimpse the books that make up their collections and the art that lines their walls. As I do this, I think, does this align with who I thought you were? I hope for meaning in the mundane; an opportunity to make a connection between the beautiful objects that fill people’s homes and how they see themselves.
In one sense, not much has changed – social media was already a window through which to people-watch, even before Zoom calls became our primary mode of social contact. And as Dayna Tortorici wrote in an essay about her relationship to Instagram, ‘modern voyeurism has precedents… [and] the entangled dynamics of who sees whom and who knows they’re being seen have always been present.’ She traces the instinct of interest in others’ lives from our present-day use of Instagram back to the Hitchcock film, Rear Window (and of course, it can be traced even further back than that). These days, social media platforms provide snacky little bites of access. But the fact that they’re curated stops them from truly satisfying any voyeuristic craving. What’s more compelling is the accidental, the deeply personal, the private. The things people don’t choose to show about how they live. The things that surround them accidentally.
The difference is vulnerability. The chance to see the messiness in people’s lives. I like seeing the way my colleagues parent when their kids (inevitably) wander into the Zoom frame mid-meeting. I love when these kids interrupt a call, to say hello or display an artwork, their parents scrambling to pan the camera away (and the off-camera whispers, sharp or garbled or pleading appeals to be quiet while mummy’s on the phone, that follow). It’s the impression of vulnerability that’s made me weirdly attached to the adult show-and-tell sessions that are becoming a feature of my meetings (the emerging ritual of displaying household objects on camera and sharing their backstory). Maybe because this activity is traditionally the domain of children, I’ve found there is no way of being the shower/teller that isn’t awkward, stilted, a little pained. Frozen grins and panicked eyes are dead giveaways for mid-story second thoughts, or the machinations of an internal monologue: ‘God, is this a National call?’ I feel such tenderness for the resolve with which these storytellers forge ahead despite discomfort, the way they let themselves be exposed in a bid to build closeness with others. Vulnerability is required to share these bits of ourselves, and intimacy is only generated when we make ourselves vulnerable.
When we go out into the world, we send signals about who we are by how we present ourselves, whether intentional or not. But our homes are private. We decorate them for ourselves, not for others. We fill them with things that spark joy in us, or simply things that we’ve acquired over a lifetime. Now these spaces are laid bare, made public. We’ve largely lost the ability to curate what people see, or who sees it. I like to think that this makes us more open to each other, closer to each other’s hearts and interior lives. I hope some of the people reading this feel the same way. For those who don’t, I quite possibly sound like a voyeuristic creep. Please don’t let that be a reason to stop inviting me over.